What’s similar between a viral pandemic and the threat of terrorism? Both are very out of ordinary phenomena whose development, death toll and future occurrence cannot be easily predicted. For this reason, I believe a key rationale that was earlier used to justify safety and security measures implemented against the threat of terrorism should also logically apply to justify our measures taken against the pandemic.
For about a month now the Internet has been swarming with posts that compare recorded numbers of COVID19 deaths to the numbers of deaths from other causes like regular flu, car accidents, heart diseases, and more. These posts state that because the recorded number of COVID19 deaths appears small, the threat of the pandemic must therefore be “overblown” and the lockdown measures disproportionate.
This view has already been empirically shown to be inaccurate. A number of models indicate that the potential death rate from COVID19 could end up much higher than the recorded numbers we have now, and that even the recorded deaths in some places have exceeded the death rates from other common causes.
Let us pretend, however, for the sake of the argument, that the current number of COVID19 deaths is indeed many times smaller than other death causes, as it appeared during the first weeks of the pandemic. Would that make valid the view that our lockdown measures are unjustified and overblown, because they aren’t proportionate to the sheer number of deaths the virus claimed? I don’t think so. The reason for that lies in an argument that was thoroughly discussed a few years ago in the context of the threat of terrorism.
After 9/11, and consequent terror attacks in the US and in Europe, a popular viewpoint was continually brought up, stating that the worry we had for terrorism and the attention and measures that were dedicated to fighting it were unjustified and “overblown”, because, well, more people in the West died in bathtub and ladder accidents than from terror attacks.
According to this position, if we were really concerned about saving lives, all the funds and resources that were spent on fighting and preventing terrorism would have been more effective if they were spent on reducing home accidents, domestic violence, heart disease or obesity. A recent version of this argument was very explicitly made by Nicholas Kristof in his February 2017 New York Times article titled “Husbands are Deadlier than Terrorists”.
Justin Fox an economics contributor to Bloomberg responded with an excellent piece “Stop Telling Me How Dangerous My Bathtub Is” a few days later. In this piece Fox addressed Kristof’s version of this argument, pointing out, amongst other things, the following:
…comparing the incidence of terrorism with that of common accidents is an incompetent and irresponsible use of statistics. Household accidents are lots and lots of small, unrelated events. As a result, while individual accidents can’t be predicted, the overall risk is easy to quantify and is pretty stable from year to year.
He argued that terrorism was a different event, because it isn’t a stable and predictable occurrence and it has an uneven distribution of incidents. Unlike in the cases of car accidents and heart disease, where the data of the last 10 or 50 years can give us a relatively accurate estimation of the number of deaths for the next year, no past data can give us an equally accurate estimate of how many people will die in terrorist attacks next year. Moreover, multiple deaths that result from a single terrorist attack are all caused by one event, whereas multiple deaths resulting home accidents are cause by a series of individual unrelated events.
For very similar reasons I believe it is incorrect to compare COVID19 deaths to household accidents or heart disease: substitute the word “terrorism” with “coronavirus” in the above paragraph and the argument still holds strong. Just like in a massive terrorist attack, the deaths resulting from a viral pandemic are caused by one related occurrence, and just like with terrorist attacks, no data from past decades can give us an accurate estimation of how the virus will spread and how many lives it will take next week or next year.
Paradoxically, this false analogy of comparing death rates of an unpredictable and new phenomenon to the statistics of stable rates of death cause by predictable events mainly appeals to those on the right side of the political spectrum when taken in the context of COVID19 deaths. At the same time, the use of the same fallacious analogy but in relation to terrorism, however, mainly appeals to those on the left side.
The Patriot Act in the US and various other measures against terrorism, like Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Anti-Terrorism Bill C-51 in Canada, were generally supported by people on the right, while those leaning left generally condemned these as unjustified, disproportionate and claimed that the threat of terrorism was exaggerated, often restating the bathtub fallacy.
Stephen M. Malt argued in his piece titled “Keep Calm and Carry On, Stephen Harper” in Foreign Policy from October, 2014 that Canada’s anti-terrorist measures were not justified, partially because “…the actual damage and danger [terrorist attacks] pose is minor compared to many other dangers” and that “these risks pale in comparison to the more prosaic dangers (highway accidents, natural disasters, influenza, etc.)…” After the terror attack on the parliament hill in Ottawa in 2015, some newspapers also accused Stephen Harper of “exaggerating the danger of ISIS” and “editorialized against exaggeration, hysteria and despair”.
Today, in relation to COVID19 measures, the sides seem to have switched on the political spectrum. I am not talking about our politicians, as in Canada most of the conservative provincial governments are doing fantastic work, they understand the full threat of COVI19 and are taking serious measures to stop its spread. However, amongst some conservative-minded public, the view is common that the threat of the pandemic is “exaggerated”, and the measures are “overblown”, as was shown in an Angus Reid poll and as also seen from discussions on social media.
Let us be consistent. If we understand the threat of terrorism and understand the measures aimed at preventing it, such as airport security screening or programs aimed at fighting radicalization and uncovering terrorist networks, we should also understand the threat of a new virus that is also deadly, unpredictable and requires equally serious measures to prevent it claiming more deaths.
Denis Tsarev is a political strategist from Toronto and has been involved in local politics and numerous election campaigns. He a Masters degree in political philosophy and is a co-founder of a small think tank Truth and Consequences.