The Coronavirus and Its Social Consequences
Heiner Rindermann • April 2, 2020 •
For days, for weeks, the media have been dominated by the spread of the corona virus. Almost every hour new numbers on infections and deceased are published. There are also reports of political reactions and the economic consequences. What was previously considered impossible is now decided: there are travel restrictions, borders are locked, people are no longer allowed to be in the streets, factories are shut down. The police control playgrounds so that no children play there. Swimming pools are closed, shops are closed. Restaurants are not allowed to enter. Football games and concerts are canceled. Churches and museums, theaters and cinemas, zoos and parks remain orphaned. My university closes. Young scientists who should be hired have to go to social assistance because the department for human resources can no longer process the files. E-mails from desperate post-docs come from abroad, which had prospects for academic jobs and are now falling into poverty.
Share prices collapse, companies anticipate profit declines and losses, sovereign debt levels increase in unprecedented rates, unemployment rises sharply. If companies, clubs, shops or hairdressers are not allowed to open and therefore do not generate any income, they can no longer pay their staff, they have to put them on short-time work and dismiss them later. Large companies, such as Vapiano and Maredo, two previously very successful large restaurant chains in Germany, and countless small self-employed people go bankrupt.
The first thing to be aware of is that these are not the consequences of the “Corona-crisis”, but the consequences of political decisions dealing with it. If people become unemployed, it is not because of the virus and illness, but because of the political restrictions that are becoming more severe day by day.
Admittedly, people would become more cautious without the many restrictions imposed, but the changes would be much less radical. When I was on the playground with the youngest child on a Saturday some days ago, the playground was filled with playing children and youngsters riding their boards in the skate park as always. I tried to keep track of what the parents and teenagers were talking about. I didn’t hear anything about Corona.
The politicians are driven by the extensive media coverage. This is very similar to the case of Fukushima in 2011, when “tens of thousands of dead” were wrongly attributed by the leading German media to the Fukushima nuclear disaster instead of to the tsunami. The politicians have to demonstrate their ability to act publicly; otherwise, the media would attribute every further death to them. Politicians try to avoid this and communicate their decisiveness.
Yet, the political decisions have many serious consequences, affecting the majority of people in the long term and affecting society as a whole. Let’s take school closure as an example: An almost overwhelming number of studies has shown that schooling promotes intelligence and knowledge, around 3.40 IQ points per year. Lag of teaching, on the other hand, leads to a reduction in intelligence, which has been demonstrated using the example of summer vacation. You can count on about 0.08 to 0.12 IQ points per week of missed lessons. These losses are greater among children from poorly educated families who are less able to learn self-directed and who are less supported by parents. The gaps between good and weak students increase with the missed lessons from day to day. In the long run, this leads to less innovation, economic growth and prosperity and to more social tensions, crime and poverty.
In consequence, fewer funds will be available in the health care and nursing.
The corona pandemic is not comparable to previous epidemics. In the Middle Ages, around a third of the population died of the plague. Because more land but fewer workers were available in the aftermath, income and prosperity increased. 50 million people died of the Spanish flu in 1918/1919, the mortality rate was between 2 and 4 percent. Not only did older people die from it, like the 56-year-old sociologist Max Weber, but especially younger people between 20 and 40 years old. Both diseases increased the so-called mortality displacement or excess mortality, which led to the death of more people and people who would otherwise not have died in this period and age.
The situation is completely different with the COVID-19 disease caused by the corona virus. According to preliminary knowledge, half to three quarters of all infected people show no symptoms at all, as was found in a complete test of the village of Vò Euganeo in Italy. So far, none or nearly none of the children have been seen to die, among young healthy adults up to the age of 50 the mortality rate is 0.3%, perhaps even significantly lower, due to incomplete records of previous illnesses. In Italy, only one person below 50 has died so far. Mortality increases from the age of 50 up to 10% among those aged 80 to 90. The average age of those who died in the Corona pandemic in Italy is around 80 years. However, age itself is not so important here, but age is associated with a higher load of previous diseases such as diabetes, heart failure, pulmonary diseases and hypertension, which weaken the immune system.
It is also not easy to determine what actually killed these people. Humans always live with viruses and bacteria, in and around them. The immune system is tuned to them and we even need this daily “battle” because otherwise allergies could arise. Therefore, intensive hygiene and intensive hand washing are not useful in everyday life, except in hospitals. The death of older people with a weak immune system is less due to the flu, corona or pneumonia themselves, but to the weak immune system, which allowed pathogens to damage their bodies. Most probably, these people would die in the foreseeable future, either from one or the other pathogen that has always been there.
On a cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, on which 700 people were infected, the mortality rate was 1%, even though the age of cruise passengers is quite high. Applied to western societies and their age structure, according to the statistician Ioannidis, this results in a mortality rate of 0.2%. Thereafter, the mortality from the corona virus has to be higher than in previously known variants of the flu in recent decades, but not extremely higher. For this winter of 2019/20, around 23,000 to 59,000 flu deaths were expected in the United States, the mortality rate is around 0.1%.
Without testing, the corona epidemic would probably not be seen as something so unusual compared to the common flu outbreaks until now. In general, almost one million people in Germany die every year, roughly the same number of deaths caused by the Second World War each year in Germany. COVID-19 would not have been noticed in the Middle Ages because the median age of the population was much lower and the number of old people with previous illnesses was much smaller. The success of modern medicine has made it possible for a disease like COVID-19 to become significant.
However, since the 1990s, the mortality rate in medicine has no longer been the relevant criterion for assessing the seriousness of an illness for a population, but the loss of years of healthy life (DALY or disability-adjusted life years). If, like the authors of a well-known study published in the Lancet, a comparison is made here with cardiovascular diseases, pneumonia, stroke, spinal disorders and traffic accidents that also affect younger people, the negative impact of COVID-19 on the life of the most would have been even more put into perspective. However, these other diseases have all been known for a long time, and the media, politicians and society have been accustomed to them psychologically. Corona, on the other hand, is new and triggers nervous reactions, supported by a political-media bombardment. Apparently, for the first time in their lives, Corona also makes many people realize that they are mortal. Political and social expectations demand to do something, and those who follow this call the most are receiving media support, at least at this time.
The distorted perception of the danger from a newly emerging infectious disease threatens to pave the way to a health dictatorship in which almost everything that stands for freedom, joie-de-vivre and pleasure is prohibited. Health and a long life in general are only one value among many other relevant ones and a fulfilled life is not represented by its length. In addition, we also allow people a lot of unreasonableness, simply because they want and everyone knows best what is good for themselves. Nobody – at least so far – came up with the idea of banning smoking, alcohol, obesity, skiing and cycling, driving a car or consuming Nutella and Big Mac, even one could extend the life of many, if all of this were prohibited and controlled by the police.
In addition, families and societies always live forward. Classically, a woman marries a man to raise children together, not to help him take care of their in-laws. The parents exist for the children, not the other way around. The children give their parents a meaning in life, not vice versa. A society never came up with the idea of closing schools and thereby jeopardizing the future of young people (and also of older people) to protect their old people. How one can be inclined to think of stopping education and science to extend the life of 90-year-olds by a few months? All of them deserve our help and respect, but by targeted quarantine, not by paralyzing everyone.
After all, you cannot stop the vital youth. The longer all the prohibitions of amusement and being together last, the more they will be undermined. It then becomes like the time of prohibition, when alcohol consumption migrated underground. Above all, subcultures of young people, of gays, migrants, and all youth in general will not let to take their lifestyle away. Thus, there are secret parties in the backrooms, an exciting cat and mouse game with the police, a little Boccaccio and Decamerone and unlike in the times of the plague, the game is almost without danger for the youth. The prohibitions and the pressures of persecution will only serve to intensify the experience. As to ride a roller coaster. We also have a tradition in the West of the “rebellious wild young man,” from Robin Hood to Gabriele D’Annunzio, Jean-Jacques Rousseau to James Dean, Friedrich Schiller to Andreas Baader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit to Martin Sellner, from left to right and again back. Clandestino and Manu Chao. They were never intimidated by something like this. Resistance is aestheticized. This will be artistically processed for generations to come.
But what do you do in practice? Corona kills people. The problem already exists and cannot be ignored. In rare exceptional cases, young people also become seriously ill and have to be artificially respirated. Most of the elderly survive, but some need intensive medical treatment. The previous political measures are inconceivable as permanent. If there is no medicine, herd immunity or vaccination, how do you want to maintain an open society in the future? Just one example: the interventions proposed by the London epidemiologists around Neil Ferguson would run for one to two years. And then? The US nor Europe nor Japan are Andaman Islands. Would East Asian countries that have successfully pursued a quarantine policy, cordoning off their countries in the long run? It is impossible in modern times to stop the spread of a virus without vaccination, only a temporary slowdown would be an option.
Instead of running global society into the ground, one has to protect and quarantine the risk groups. Not closing schools and factories, restaurants and football stadiums, and if, only for a very short period of time. Prepare hospitals and the healthcare system for an increase in diseases as quickly as possible would be a sensible course of action. The virus will then spread rapidly in the society of the youth and midlifers and set herd immunity at an infection rate of 60 to 70%. This protects the risk groups relatively well from damage. Since the pathogen is highly infectious, everything could be overcome within a few weeks. For Italy and England, for example, a study by epidemiologists at Oxford University already predicts an infection rate of more than 50%.
But there is no solution without risks. Even if vaccinated, not everyone will be protected. The virus will surely mutate. We have to adapt to the fact that it is in the world and that people die from it. In the past we were forced to deal with the flu. We will also succeed with Corona. In winter 2012/13, between 21,000 and 29,000 people died of flu in Germany – around 25,000 of a total of just under a million deaths in Germany each year.
The corona pandemic will increase these numbers, but it will not lead to disaster. The damage to society caused by current policies in the short to long term must be reduced. Politics will surely change soon. The quick decision-makers who have been advancing so far want to be at the forefront again and present themselves as saviors of business and society.
Prof. Dr. Heiner Rindermann is professor of psychology at the Chemnitz University of Technology, Germany. He works on the subjects human capital and society, education and cultural comparison. His latest book „Cognitive capitalism: Human capital and the wellbeing of nations“ has been published in 2018 by Cambridge University Press.
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