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

Jack Kurtz/ZUMA

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

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.

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate