We at PEA Soup are happy to announce another timely entry in The Pebble of broad interest-a short piece on traveling during the pandemic brought to you by Benjamin Hause, a graduate student in philosophy at Florida State University. Many thanks to Benjamin for choosing PEA Soup! Let’s turn it over to Ben:
Last month we saw many condemnations of Thanksgiving travelers. David Faris, of The Week, called them “evil, selfish, and cartoonishly destructive”. And New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo was the subject of scorn after confessing his Thanksgiving travel plans. Manjoo himself admitted his decision to travel was “like a gut call, ruled more by emotion than empirical data”. Now, just before Christmas, Covid-19 deaths are even higher. Yet, people are still traveling. Is that okay?
I think so. And I don’t think this is just some heedless “gut call” either. To be clear, I don’t condone systemically risky behavior, nor am I against well executed lockdowns. But I do think that occasional travel, like for Christmas, is within the bounds of risk we have always accepted. To illustrate, let’s consider the 2017-2018 flu season in the United States.
In that season, an estimated 61,000 people died from the flu. Half the recorded deaths occurred during just five weeks. That would extrapolate to an estimated 900 daily flu deaths in those weeks. In comparison, there were about 1500 daily recorded Covid-19 deaths before Thanksgiving, 2100 during the peak in April, and 2500 right now. (These are 7-day averages).
Some people think comparing flu estimates with Covid-19 counts is misleading. But we can also look at excess mortality data. Last April, there were 3260 daily excess deaths. During the worst week of the flu endemic, there were 1114 daily excess deaths. Add back in the non-excess flu deaths, and we are again looking at a considerable flu toll.
As you can see, Covid-19 kills two to three times as many people per day as the flu did during its worst weeks. Were it not for mitigation measures, Covid-19 would kill even more. If we assume that people are interacting ten times less due to those mitigation measures, then Covid-19 is causing twenty or thirty times more deaths per interaction than the flu ever caused. By going out during the pandemic, you are thus twenty or thirty times more likely to cause someone’s death compared to prior flu seasons.
That sounds like a big increase. But notice that it is an increase over a number which never caused us any trepidation in the first place. Indeed, someone with twenty times more social interaction than me is also twenty times more likely to cause a flu death. But we don’t let that bother us, because we don’t normally worry about flu risk. Similarly, someone who occasionally goes out during the pandemic poses no more risk to others than someone who parties all the time during flu season. Condemning the former, but not the latter, is simply inconsistent. That’s data, not gut!
Now, my suggestion is that we condemn neither. Frequent socialization during flu season is okay, as is infrequent travel during the pandemic. But that doesn’t excuse our complete negligence of flu risk before. The pandemic has brought to our attention an underappreciated fact: that we can save thousands of lives every year with low cost mitigation measures like mask wearing and flu vaccination. After we finally move past the pandemic, we may continue to save lives year after year.