In plain English this time. What is the right way to think about the risk of Covid? About three percent of people who get Covid are dying from it. That number drops precipitously for those outside a few well-defined risk groups (namely older adults and those with certain preexisting conditions). People do risky things every day. We all get in cars, some smoke cigarettes, and most of us eat things we know are unhealthy. Here’s a list of the top causes of death in the U.S. since the first confirmed Covid death: Heart disease (340,889), Cancer (299,358), Covid-19 (148,772), Lower respiratory disease (78,443), Stroke (78,350), Alzheimer’s (66,401), Diabetes (49,215), and Influenza/Pneumonia (30,216). In addition, car accidents cause about 38,000 deaths per year in the U.S. To reiterate: we get in cars, smoke cigarettes, and eat things we know are terrible for us. We do these things every day. We do them without thinking about it.

Some caveats to the Covid numbers: there is reason to think the reported deaths may be higher than the actual deaths. The U.K. health department recently reduced their Covid death count by 11 percent, owing to a recognition that their methodology for counting such deaths was over-inclusive (the new methodology still includes deaths of people who tested positive for Covid in the last 4 weeks, regardless of the actual cause of death). Our own CDC Director is on record admitting that hospitals have a financial incentive to overreport how many lives Covid has claimed. We also don’t know how many people have such mild symptoms that they don’t know they’re sick, meaning that the three percent fatality rate is likely too high, both because there are fewer deaths and more exposures than have been reported. But even assuming the numbers are exactly right, total deaths from Covid in the U.S. are closer to the ninth leading cause of death (Septicemia, with 19,796) than they are to the second.

So why does Covid inspire so much more fear than those other causes? Likely because it’s new. Fear of the novel isn’t, itself, novel. It’s as old as time. This is not a situation where there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Covid is serious. Some amount of fear is understandable. Certainly some caution is rational, especially for those in high risk categories and their caretakers. But it is not rational to let a disease that is usually mild induce a national panic. It is not rational to let fear of death diminish life as we know it. It is not rational to allow anyone else to override and deride our own individual judgments over how best to run our lives. Self determination, choosing the acceptable balance of risk and reward for ourselves and our families, is a precious freedom, not one to be handed over lightly— especially to those who fancy themselves central planners over every aspect of life.

We need to weigh the real risks of our decisions against the known costs of the alternatives. And there are real costs to keeping the economy shuttered, only a few of which are financial. Some are emotional. Some are physical. Some are immediate, but others may not be recognized for years, and some may remain invisible. Then there are those that go to the heart of our national character. Are we learning to substitute edicts from on high for our own judgements in matters of our private affairs?    

Socialist central planning of the economy has proven utterly disastrous time and time again. What makes us think we have the ability or the right to dictate to people what health risks they are allowed to take? How can someone working in government who has never met you possibly know what’s best for you? Since no one knows the future, we often can’t be sure of the best choice for ourselves. But given that uncertainty, there is certainly no one qualified to weigh risk and reward for anyone else. There is dignity in choosing our own paths, bearing responsibility, and working through the consequences. A top-down mandate dictating how individuals navigate a temporary epidemic that is killing three percent of those who get it strips us of that dignity. It robs us of the responsibilities inherent to the human condition. It conditions us to accept subservience of our God-given faculties to the judgment of faraway bureaucrats. 

Here’s what lifting mandates – whether full lockdown or “only” mask requirements doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean that everyone will be ordered to go to a crowded mall and lick the door handles. It doesn’t mean that anyone will be forced to go outside at all. It merely reopens that latter option to anyone who judges risks acceptable. Do you honestly believe that anyone anywhere, much less anyone in government, knows enough about you to override your judgment?

Mike Davis is a Research Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.