Advocates of “herd immunity” strategies often claim that COVID-19 is relatively safe for the young and that most of the victims are old. This observation is correct, but the question is what to make of it. Often the implication — stated or not — is that the response to the pandemic need not be so vigorous because the loss of life, as measured in years, is less than it appears.

It is an uncomfortable but necessary discussion, they say. So be it — but once the conversation turns to which deaths matter the most, other questions about COVID-19 start to arise, almost all of which push in the direction of a very vigorous response. When either foreign enemies or pathogens attack U.S. lives on a noticeable scale, the pushback needs to be very hard indeed.

Consider 9/11, when some 3,000 Americans died. The U.S. mounted a very activist response that included new security procedures at airports, crackdowns on money laundering, increased surveillance and two wars. Not all of those choices were prudent, but nonetheless they qualify as a very vigorous response.

The point is this: Had three Americans been killed rather than 3,000 — if, say, 9/11 was a U.S. holiday the hijackers didn’t know about, so fewer people were working — the optimal response would not have been all that different. There were a lot of casualties, but it is also significant that several airplanes were brazenly hijacked and flown into major iconic buildings, the Pentagon was hit, and Congress itself came under threat.

Polities that do not respond to such attacks soon find themselves out of business. Not only do they invite further intimidations, but their citizens lose faith in the government’s ability to maintain public order or shape the future of the nation. The entire U.S. system of government may well have been at stake in the decision to respond to 9/11 in a significant way.

By contrast, about 3,500 Americans die each year in fires. To repeat: That is each year. Yet Americans have not responded to deaths by fire as they did to 9/11, nor has a major public discussion ensued.

To be clear, the U.S. probably should do more to limit the number of fire deaths. But they do not threaten the nation and constitutional order in the way that terrorist attacks do. How people die is crucial in helping a nation and society scale its response and frame the debate over what to do.

COVID-19 is obviously more like 9/11 than it is like the annual toll of fire deaths. It commands the headlines every day, has created a global economic depression, is reshaping global politics and the balance of power, causes extreme stress for millions and has significantly harmed America’s global reputation. Yes, there have been some anxiety-driven overreactions, but it is inevitable that humans will respond dramatically to a major worldwide pandemic.

To be sure, the number of U.S. victims is high — 220,000 and counting, plus some number of excess deaths from broader causes. But the event itself is so cataclysmic that “downgrading” those deaths by saying many of the victims were elderly doesn’t make a big difference in terms of formulating an optimal response.

Furthermore, it is likely that coronaviruses will return, which is all the more reason to excel in response now. To consider another example, during the 2002-03 outbreak of SARS-1, 774 people died worldwide, none of them in America. The countries that took that virus seriously — Korea, Taiwan and Canada, to name a few — have performed much better during the current crisis. And many of the best biomedical responses, including vaccines and monoclonal antibodies, have evolved from very serious responses to previous pandemics.

One final (rather outlandish) thought experiment: Imagine that an enemy of the U.S. demanded that 100 90-year-old Americans be handed over each year for execution. Of course America would refuse. The age of the victims would not be a factor in that decision.

Pandemics have been civilization-altering events since the beginning of human history, and they still are — especially if we do not respond properly. The need to get the response right, not the relative worth of the young to that of the old, is the main thing that we should be obsessing about.

 

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”