“You are looking at car accidents that are far bigger than any number we’re talking about,” Trump said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to tell everyone that they no longer drive a car. So we have to do things to open up our country. “
He wasn’t the first to make this analogy, nor was it the first time he did it. It’s a bad analogy, however.
When you hear someone compare the number of deaths caused by the coronavirus pandemic to the number of auto accidents in the US, your first answer should be something like this: How do you know how many people are dying from the pandemic will? ?
We have somehow accepted that this comparison between the death toll from the virus and the 35,000 to 40,000 annual deaths from car accidents is fair. At the moment it’s not; The number of people who have died from Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, has been in the hundreds, not tens of thousands. The comparison itself assumes that we will see at least a hundred times as many deaths from the virus.
Trump assures us that the number of deaths from car accidents “is far higher than the number we talk about with the coronavirus,” but he has no way of knowing. Right from the start, this shows a central problem with this and other comparisons. Perhaps the death toll from the virus is around 40,000. However, some estimates suggest that the death toll will be more than an order of magnitude higher as the pandemic progresses, perhaps over 1 million. This amount would span several years and assumes that we do not take significant steps to limit its spread. That is, of course, what the debate is about: how long must measures to limit the death toll be taken?
So that comparison with car accidents falls apart from the start just because we don’t know the extent of deaths from the virus. We know something about the virus that makes it clear how bad the comparison is: that it is a virus.
We know that unlike car accidents, coronavirus cases – and therefore deaths – can increase exponentially. Someone with the virus can infect two to three others. For every 100 people who become infected, experts believe that one will die. This rate of spread has caused the number of coronavirus cases in the United States to rise from 8,000 a week ago to nearly 50,000.
To fairly compare car accidents to the virus, we would have to imagine that the boundaries of the problem are similar. For example, we have to imagine that the number of deaths from car accidents increased by a factor of 10 from March 4th to March 14th. And that again from March 14th to 24th. Do you think there would be no sudden pressure to cut back on driving if the number of road deaths increased 100 times in two weeks?
Imagine that most cars use a common operating system to control internal systems. All of a sudden, one day, something goes wrong with the code and the system forces cars to accelerate uncontrollably. We would suddenly see a lot of fatal accidents and a lot of close calls.
Now imagine if we could find that the problem could be broadcast from cars to other vehicles in the vicinity over the internal WiFi networks, allowing the problem to hop from one car to the next. We’d see places where the problem was worse, like crowded highways. Very quickly there would be restrictions on when and where you could drive your car. After all, something had changed in the expected order and needed to be fixed.
However, the analogy between coronavirus and auto really breaks down as it ignores one of the virus’s immediate threats. When we talk about 40,000 car crash deaths, we’re talking about it happening nationally over the course of a year. So far, when we talk about deaths from Covid-19, we are talking about an increase in deaths in certain regions over a short period of time.
The scenario we are in right now is that there have been 1,000 major car accidents on a freeway in a medium-sized city and the drivers and their passengers are now being taken to several nearby hospitals. The hospitals examine patients and find out who needs what care, but very quickly they run out of beds in the emergency room and no more doctors to care for the patients. The sheer scale of the problem means people are dying and waiting for a bed or waiting to be tried.
People sitting in the waiting room with other ailments may also die and not be able to sustain the limited resources. Even this analogy does not go far enough, however, as it does not take into account the risk that doctors and medical staff could intercept, endanger, and reduce the resources available in the hospital by themselves.
It is understandable that people would want to return to the life they enjoyed a month ago. I would like to do that too; I want to go to a restaurant or take my son to a museum. I would hope that covid-19 does not pose a greater risk than driving a car. That’s not the case. Return to normal proponents specifically use the example of a car accident because it feels like a bit of normalcy for which we take certain risks. But what is happening now is just not comparable, and comparisons between car accidents and the coronavirus are so simple they are ridiculous.
“I think this is a false equivalency to be used to compare traffic accidents with – I mean, this is a complete way out,” said Anthony S. Fauci, a leading voice on the president’s coronavirus task force, on Friday. “This is really a false equivalency.”
Ideally, the current measures we have taken (on Fauci’s recommendation) limit the number of deaths from the virus to around the number of deaths from car accidents. Ideally, a vaccine or treatment that limits future effects will be available by fall. However, this ideal result would not change the fact that the comparison of the virus with car accidents is currently completely wrong.