Is This Coronavirus Different, or Are We?
While the urgent response of national and local public health officials and the medical community at large to contain the spread of COVID-19 is eminently sensible, the extreme reaction of financial markets and many ordinary citizens to the virus might appear to be excessive or even hysterical.
After all, we have experienced several incidents of contagious viruses going global this century, including SARS, MERS and H1N1, but none elicited the intense public reaction or financial market response that COVID-19 has unleashed, especially here at home. What makes this episode so unique?
In particular, the H1N1 influenza A virus of 2009 seems an apt comparison. The World Health Organization declared the 2009 H1N1 outbreak a global pandemic in June 2009, a few months after its outbreak. According to estimates from the CDC, there were 61 million cases of H1N1 in the United States, representing approximately 20% of the U.S. population, resulting in 274,000 hospitalizations and 12,500 deaths between April 2009 and April 2010.
Its mortality rate was very low, less than 0.02% percent. Worldwide, H1N1 killed at least 150,000 people (or 500,000 at the high end of its range estimate), according to CDC estimates, with 80% of virus-related deaths occurring in people under 65 years of age. The reaction to H1N1 outside the global medical community was far more restrained than it is to COVID-19, and its impact on the global economy was not material. Yet here we are a decade later, with many folks seemingly in near-panic mode as reported case numbers and deaths accelerate sharply within weeks after its arrival on our shores.