Issues & Insights
Gerd Altmann CC0 Public Domain

How To Create A Pandemic Panic … And Keep It Going

This week, California, which has a death rate that is less than half the national average, is rolling back its reopening amid an increase in coronavirus cases. Elsewhere, we’re awash in stories about how states have reopened “too soon.” Why the continued panic when we know that the disease is far less lethal than originally feared?

If nothing else, the coronavirus pandemic is a textbook example of how to create fear and anxiety that is out of proportion to the threat, and spur panic-induced policies that needlessly kill people (like seniors in New York nursing homes). It also demonstrates how to keep the panic going, even as evidence piles up that the initial fears were wildly exaggerated.

Before anyone accuses us of being indifferent to COVID-19 deaths, or of being conspiracy mongers, we feel the need to point out that we aren’t saying that the coronavirus isn’t a serious public health threat. It obviously is. The question is whether the risk is being exaggerated and whether public policies enacted in the wake of it are necessary or effective.

Here are five steps that got the coronavirus panic started and why it continues to this day.

1. Wildly exaggerate the deadliness of the disease. Most perceptions of the coronavirus were formed when the World Health Organization announced that the fatality rate was above 3%. If true, there would be millions of people dead. But it wasn’t even close to accurate. Based on ever greater amounts of data, we know that that the death rate is more like a bad flu season than the plague. Then there was the report from the Imperial College of London in March that claimed that even with draconian lockdowns in place, a million people in the U.S. would die from the coronavirus. That model has since been debunked, but the combination of the two extremely dire forecasts set the public’s perception of the disease and acceptance of draconian control measures.

2. Overcount deaths and undercount cases. These perceptions have continued because of the way cases and deaths are counted. On the one hand, the number of “confirmed” cases is a fraction of the actual number of people who’ve contracted the disease. That’s because many have symptoms that are minor or nonexistent, and so they never bother to get tested. In fact, one reason for the increase in “confirmed” cases is the fact that testing is more routine, even for those who are asymptomatic.

At the same time, the number of COVID-19 deaths is almost certainly exaggerated because we aren’t counting deaths caused by COVID-19, but, per CDC guidelines, deaths among people who have tested positive for COVID-19, or are presumed to have had the disease. There’s a big difference between the two.

Colorado started tracking both numbers, and today the number of people who’ve died in the state with COVID-19 is 1,725. But the number of deaths due to COVID-19 is 8% lower at 1,586. Yet the number reported by the CDC for Colorado is 1,725. Reports from other states have found similar or higher levels of bloat in the death counts. Apply Colorado’s ratio nationwide and it means the national death count is more than 11,000 too high.

3. Ignore positive trends. Amid all the agonizing over the rise in new coronavirus cases are data that should be reassuring, but are being largely ignored. For example, while the number of new cases has been skyrocketing, the number of deaths hasn’t. This isn’t just because there’s a lag between the two. Over the past four weeks, the number of daily new cases has climbed four-fold, but the number of deaths, while up, isn’t anywhere near the mid-April peak, which occurred one month after the first surge of daily cases began.

The chart below shows the total number of deaths compared with the total number of confirmed cases since May. Notice a trend?

Meanwhile, the CDC now says that the COVID-19 numbers no longer meet the threshold for an epidemic. How many news sites led with this news?

4. Act as though any new infection is a tragedy. The news media continue to treat outbreaks of COVID-19 as a death sentence. It’s news when a prominent person tests positive, but not when they get better. Nor has the press done a good job of explaining the relative risk of the disease to different demographic groups. Instead, we keep hearing things like “COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate” when the data clearly show that it does. Targeting public health money and efforts at vulnerable populations makes sense. Universal lockdowns don’t.

5. Ignore the health consequences of lockdowns. We’ve argued in this space for months that the cure for coronavirus may very well end up being worse than the disease. That is, the panic induced by those early false reports about its lethality, and the resulting lockdowns, could end up causing more deaths than are saved by the lockdowns. Prudent measures like social distancing and mask requirements might have been all that was needed all along. For example, the CDC says that closing schools poses a great risk to children’s health than reopening them. Yet some school districts in California, for example, have already announced that schools won’t reopen this fall.

Underlying all this is the presumption — imposed by the public health community — that you can never be too careful. By this standard, there’s nothing wrong with grossly overplaying the threat of a disease. But reporting good news, or providing accurate data about risks is a public disservice because it might cause people to be “too” lax.

If we’re going to learn anything from this experience, the first lesson ought to be how to avoid a panic the next time a pandemic comes around. Because once a panic is induced, it’s hard to stop.

— Written by the I&I Editorial Board

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The Issues and Insights Editorial Board has decades of experience in journalism, commentary and public policy.


  • This virus is being treated the same as HIV was in the 80’s. We were told everyone was at risk so we had to do this and that to protect everyone. The fact that a disease does discriminate was removed from the political equation. AIDS was the first politicized disease. First, to blame Ronald Reagan (he created it, after all, to kill homosexuals!) Second, and most important, not to single out homosexuals and IV drug users for their bad life style choices. Same people involved, Fauci, et al, same result.

    • Except that it’s not. I was living in NYC at the time. No one wore face masks. No lockdowns, quarantines, or “social distancing” was ever employed, let alone suggested doing so as a way to “flatten the curve”. Reagan was indeed ludicrously blamed (first for indifference and then for everything you cite), but no one – even terrified but gullible Phil Donohue fans – would have accepted shutting down the country. This entire thing feels like a “Twilight Zone” episode.

  • This virus has been politicized from the beginning, and so, mismanaged. California is about to shoot themselves in the foot, again, by shutting down again. Proper management would be to protect the vulnerable, test as many as we can, quarantine those actively infected at home, wear masks, wash your hands and observe social distancing. This isn’t rocket science, but the above would help to reduce/bend the curve further. When it’s all said and done the governors of the NY Tri-state area should all resign for their terrible management and the resulting Nursing home deaths.

    • Nick, why should they wait?
      The “governors of the NY tri-state area’ should resign immediately, maybe, with luck, someone with some intelligence and common sense will take their places and do theoir jobs…. competently!

  • Here is my priority for information on the pandemic:
    1. My personal physician
    2. University medical experts
    3. Government medical experts
    4. Media reports
    5. Politicians
    6. Columnists.

  • What a wait to “twist” the coronavirus pandemic to for the narrative that there is too much concern about it. People are dying, cases are spiking in the west and southern states, ER’s are filling up, and the death toll rises. I don’t see anything in this article that debunks the facts -only a position that there is too much hysteria around COVID. Bullocks!

    • “Cases” are spiking?? Or are positive tests spiking, with a test that has a 30% false positive rate? How many have died from regular flu so far this year? Why has the CDC stopped supplying those stats? Death rates are way down, Florida hospitals admit falsifying data to massively inflate COVID rates. ERs are always busy in the summer, ICUs usually run at 80% capacity, and a lot of folks are now sick because they were denied care during the height of the COVID h-y-p-e. This is all about keeping the economies shut down to force mail in vote fraud and hide Joe Biden as much as possible.

      • Can you provide a valid news source with the links of where a hospital in Florida is falsifying their COVID number reporting? And to confirm what benefit do they get from that again?

  • If masks work and we are forced to wear them, how will we ever achieve herd immunity?

    • No need to worry, mask are all about creating drama. You won’t need them if you vote for Joe Biden

    • Masks don’t prevent all infections, but they do reduce the viral load. A reduced viral load means milder cases, even asymptomatic cases. And that is one way to safely, slowly get to herd immunity. Widespread but mild infections.

      • What if he’d immunity was not achievable with this virus and the other COVID out there? What if the antibodies did not last for years or decades but months? What if there are serious and lasting side effects?

  • “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

    ― H.L. Mencken, In Defense Of Women

  • Deaths are indeed down, but the article completely ignores hospitalization figures, and hospital-bed capacity. Which really is just as big of an issue.

  • I remember very well how Republicans cried that Obamacare was a death panel. That fake outrage shines bright today. Talk about messed up mentalities, y’all are headed for a mental breakdown.

  • This hysteria would not be possible without the willing complicity of media outles who are more than eager to stoke the fear with lies and propaganda.

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