The Science of Worst Case Scenarios

Over the past week, I have seen a number of alarmists online — some of them accredited scientific experts with big degrees and fancy job titles — comparing the current coronavirus pandemic to the “Spanish Flu” outbreak of 1918. One such scientific expert is Dr. Bryan Lewis, a professor at the Biocomplexity Institute at the University of Virginia, who has stated publicly (though not very scientifically) that this coronavirus “is potentially a very significant event, the Hurricane Sandy of epidemics.”

Dr. Lewis adds that “When current estimates for COVID-19 are compared to the 1918 pandemic, they are eerily similar.”

Before going into the details about just how “eerily similar” the two outbreaks are, let me just set the table for you by providing an analogy:

When we look at apples and oranges, we quickly see that they are eerily similar. Both are fruit, both more or less round, both edible, and both come in a number of varieties. Of course, you might point out, by contrast, that the differences between them are so marked that apples and oranges have in fact become the universal paradigm of unlike things, as in, “That’s like comparing apples and oranges.” But if we just blithely overlooked all those differences that make apples and oranges so paradigmatically distinct from one another, and, furthermore, directed our claim exclusively at people who have never seen or tasted apples and oranges, we could just go ahead and stick to our assertion that the two are “eerily similar.”

Now, back to our comparison of the two eerily similar viral outbreaks in question. The first thing that jumped out at me, when I started noticing these “Spanish Flu” references popping up ominously within the online discussion of coronavirus, was this date: 1918. That is to say, World War I. And the first thing that occurred to me when I thought of WWI in this connection was millions of soldiers trapped together in confined quarters, or stranded together in large, poorly-ventilated military hospital facilities, or traveling together in very large numbers across oceans.

So I did a little reading, at a few online sources, about the 1918 flu pandemic. (See a helpful overview here.) And the most striking thing I learned, within moments of beginning my research, was that the 1918 flu, completely anomalous for a flu outbreak, claimed a large proportion of its victims among young men. This, of course, is exactly the opposite of COVID-19, which is afflicting populations in the manner of a normal seasonal flu outbreak, which is to say that the vast majority of those dying or becoming severely ill are the very old and those with serious preexisting medical conditions.

One reason the 1918 pandemic was so devastating to the world’s young adult population is, not surprisingly, that so many of the early victims were soldiers and military personnel who infected one another quickly during the first and second waves of the outbreak.

In normal flu outbreaks, those hit with the worst strains of the virus, and therefore most seriously ill, tend to be quickly separated from the general population due to death or self-isolation (staying home due to illness). As a result, the weaker or less harmful strains of the virus tend to quickly become the dominant strains due to natural selection. In 1918, on the other hand, otherwise healthy men were contracting the worst strains of the virus (in particular the “second wave”) and then — rather than staying home or otherwise separating themselves from the community — spreading this most virulent illness widely among other healthy young men, who in turn spread it all over the world through large-scale troop movements, on train trips to military hospitals, or among civilian populations upon returning home.

On top of that, many governments systematically hid the scale of known cases, for purposes of wartime morale, and presumably also to avoid suggesting weakness to enemy nations, which strictly-enforced silence of course allowed the virus to continue spreading rapidly under the radar, as would not have happened had everyone been apprised of the situation and encouraged to take precautions, stay home if unwell, stop traveling, and so on.

The peculiarities of the virus not being weakened by the normal social processes of isolating the most ill, and of millions of young men packed together in virus breeding grounds for crucial weeks at a time, seem to be essential to understanding what made that WWI-era outbreak so extraordinary and so deadly among modern flu epidemics.

It is true that today’s coronavirus could mutate into a form more severe than the current one, although that is pure speculation. It is already mutating, as we now know; but as explained above, more virulent strains are likely to weed themselves out of the pandemic quickly, precisely by causing death or severe illness during a brief early period, with the consequent social isolation of the afflicted — the natural self-correcting mechanism that was forcibly prevented from operating in 1918. The conditions that allowed the most dangerous mutation of the 1918 virus to continue spreading unchecked throughout the civilized world, namely a world war and carefully-enforced global secrecy, simply do not exist today. On the contrary, what we have seen is that China, hardest hit of all nations (so far), has apparently contained the worst of it within a relatively narrow geographical area. Likewise, South Korea, my home, now has over 5,600 confirmed cases, and 34 deaths to date, but the vast majority of these are restricted to a small central portion of the peninsula, in and near the city of Daegu, where a large religious group spread the virus widely, but mostly among themselves, for weeks before this source was identified.

Thus, when one looks at the details of the 1918 flu pandemic, beyond the superficial facts that it was a flu and a pandemic, at least some of those details, and among them the all-important elements of historical context and mass population movements, are so radically different from today’s situation that it would be irresponsible conjecture at best, outright fearmongering at worst, to suggest publicly — especially from behind the façade of professional expertise — that the two cases are substantially alike, let alone to deliberately cue the horror movie music in the popular mind by declaring the current outbreak “eerily similar” to the worst flu pandemic anyone has ever seen. 

Historically speaking, the two cases look more like apples and oranges to me. So keep your fearmongering and alarmism, dear experts. Just do your work, and give people reasonable advice about daily flu-season hygiene. Too many of your unscientific public statements are starting to look eerily similar to careerist opportunism and a craving for the bright lights.

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