We Have No Idea How Many People the Coronavirus Pandemic Will Kill

Jack Kurtz/ZUMA

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It’s worth a quick note to point out that we no longer have any real idea of how deadly the coronavirus pandemic is going to be in the US. We’ve long since passed the point where the key to understanding the likely spread of the pandemic was a better understanding of the virus itself. What matters going forward is the countermeasures we put in place to stop its transmission routes.

Somebody should feel free to stop me if I’m wrong here, but we’re in terra incognita on that score. We’ve never had a widespread pandemic where we’ve put in place strict and widespread countermeasures, and that means we’re just guessing at how effective they are. The guess of an epidemiologist might be better than the guess of a blogger, but it’s still just a guess. We simply have no experience to draw on.

When this is all over we’ll spend years trying to assess which measures worked well and which ones didn’t. But even with time it will be difficult to untangle all the various threads and make sense of them. We don’t have that time now, so we’re flying blind.

This is the main reason you see estimates ranging wildly from 80,000 deaths to half a million. These size of the estimates all depend on which countermeasures you think we’ll adopt; how well they’ll work; how long we’ll keep them in place; and how seriously people will take them. Unfortunately, even the smartest epidemiologist in the world has a limited insight into things like that. So we just don’t know.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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