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A holiday card to the industry – 2020

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In ten days we can all celebrate having survived 2020.

Except for those of us who didn’t survive it.

A friend made the point that while most of us are quite concerned about COVID-19, we don’t think twice about the risk of driving to the supermarket and dying from injuries sustained in a collision.

As it turns out, my friend’s point made, with the assistance of a bit of googling, the opposite point: It turns out that traveling 230 miles by car carries with it a 1 “micromort” risk, a micromort being a one-in-a-million chance of sudden death. Extrapolating, a trip to the supermarket has a mortality risk of about 1 in 20 million, compared to the 1 in 1,000 we share for dying of COVID-19.

But the question he asked was the right one.

Without in any way trivializing the devastation that’s hit so many of us so hard on so many different fronts, I think that if we allow it, 2020 has given us an opportunity – an opportunity to think better.

Especially, this is the year that’s taught us how much the question my friend asked … “Compared to what?” … matters.

For example: As of this writing, California’s COVID-19 mortality has reached 22,436. On the face of it, this is carnage.

But … 22,436 compared to what? In round numbers, California’s population of 39.5 million is about the same as Florida and New York combined (40.9 million). But Florida and New York’s combined COVID-19 mortality is more than twice what California has experienced – 56,175.

Meanwhile, many of our fellow citizens are outraged … OUTRAGED! as they might have posted on Twitter … at being told by their government that they must socially distance themselves from others around them and, when in proximity, they must wear pieces of cloth in front of their faces.

But before we allow outrage to get the better of us, let’s ask our 2020 question: compared to what?

That is, if we compare mask-wearing imperatives to governmental regulation of, say, bowling, mandatory mask-wearing is a sizeable imposition. But if instead we compare them to the laws that protect our neighbors by requiring sobriety while driving, not to mention being having to earn a driver’s license and carry insurance?

When we think about the activities we’ve had to curtail or give up entirely, and how the businesses we patronized to enjoy them that have suffered catastrophically, yes, it’s been a miserable year.

But miserable compared to what? Our misery is trivial compared to what Londoners experienced during the blitz in WWII. And from what I know of the subject, Londoners in WWII complained less. (On that subject let me take a moment to commend Citizens of London to your reading list.)

So as we gripe about what an awful year 2020 was, let’s take a few moments to put it in perspective – to ask ourselves, when pondering our misery, what we’re comparing our it to?

Because we’ve had bad years before. There was 66,065,543 BC, when an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, along with three quarters of all other plant and animal species. There was 1347, when the bubonic plague hit Europe, eventually killing more than 25 million.

There was 1967, when paisley somehow seemed like a good idea, and, even more awful, 1970, when disco ran amok.

Meanwhile, in 2020 we discovered just how much we know about genetic engineering – enough to sequence a virus’s DNA and, in less than a year, engineer effective vaccines. Had we started trying to develop a COVID-19 vaccine ten years ago using the techniques available then, right about now we might have a vaccine worth testing.

Also in 2020 we discovered that, somewhere along the way, businesses either had already deployed or could deploy with relative ease the technologies needed for employees to collaborate with customers and clients, and each other, without needing to meet in person.

My first involvement with the business use of personal computers and computing was four decades ago. At the time, each personal computer required a separate capital proposal, complete with a financial Return on Investment (ROI) analysis.

In 2020 the business case for equipping employees with personal computers is “Don’t be ridiculous.”

So as we wrap up a year that was far from what we’d hoped it would be, let’s all ask each other to maintain perspective – to ask, no matter what the subject, “Compared to what?”

Because if we give an honest answer, for most of us and in most respects, while our situations are far from perfect, they’re closer to better than they are to worse.

# # #

I hope you find ways to have a wonderful holiday season. Me? I’m going to take a couple of weeks off – see you in 2021.

In the meantime, if you’re in the mood for past years’ Holiday Cards to the Industry, here’s where you’ll find them in the Archives: https://issurvivor.com/?s=%22holiday+card+to+the+industry%22 .

I hope you take the time to enjoy them.

Comments (8)

  • Well put Bob. Thank you for this perspective.

  • The estimate of a one in one thousand chance of dying from COVID from a trip to the supermarket has three errors. The first is we don’t know the odds of being infected from a trip to the supermarket. It is certainly less than one in ten, but it could be anywhere from one in fifty to one in one thousand. The other is that the estimates of death rate from COVID 19 has two problems. One is that we don’t have anything resembling an adequate estimate of the total number of infections, eg the denominator. The numerator is more accurate but also has problems, comorbidity being the obvious one. But the different states are using different methodologies in assigning COVID as cause of death. I read recently that a coroners office did a Covid test on the corpse of a gunshot victim, found he had been infected, and included COVID as a cause of death. It probably is not true, unless there were extra funds available for working with Covid victims.

    • Well, it’s imperfect, but I just figured a U.S. population of something over 300 million and deaths from COVID-19 over 300,000 and more on the way. Also, in very round numbers the time from now until vaccines will be able to make a dent is roughly the same as the time from when the virus first started to get attention through today.

      It’s far from exact, but it’s a reasonable approximation to say our risk going forward is about the same as the risk up until now … 1 in 1 thousand.

      I’ve run across anecdotal accounts like your mention of the gunshot victim. I’m skeptical that these have occurred in large enough numbers to matter. Co-morbidity is a challenge for constructing good risk metrics, but my point doesn’t depend on decimal-place accuracy. While researchers might debate the merits of different methodologies, none dispute that the coronavirus death toll has exceeded 300,000.

  • Now that shot at disco was uncalled for! Let me guess, you were one of the people at Comiskey field burning disco records?

    I look at it a different way. In the 70s we had no social media and no 24 hour news channels and no Internet. It was peaceful.

    Happy Holidays Bob.

  • For the calculations, you could also use total deaths. About 32,000/year for auto accidents, and for gun deaths. So COVID-19 is 10 times as dangerous as a gun!!!!!!!!
    I don’t think that argument would change anybody’s mind but it might change what you argue about.

    I compare mask-wearing to seatbelt-wearing. Chances are you aren’t going to get in an accident so wearing a seatbelt is a “waste of time.” Chances are you won’t die.

    Same with covid. Even if you get it, chances are you won’t die. (Most [999/1000] people don’t die which is the stat used by anti-maskers).

    But why take the chance?

    • Death is at the centre of many, if not most discussions about COVID-19. But death is ‘only’ the ultimate outcome. Many infected people need weeks or months to recover fully from the effects of the illness and, in some cases, a stay in the intensive care unit. Something to bear in mind as well.

  • Nice article. But you are a little too hard on 1970. Disco didn’t really get going until the mid-to-late 70s, and peaked around 1979.

    On another topic, the threat of dying for Covid-19 is often cited as the only danger, when in fact there are many more who have lingering effects for weeks, months, years, or even permanent organ damage. So raw death statistics understate the threat. They also conveniently omit the even larger picture, which is that cases, and deaths, are increasing exponentially, decimating the ranks of police (which has already helped lead to significantly more murders) and fire fighters, overwhelming our hospital system, and producing more mutations which could be even worse than the original virus.

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