Why this Republican senator’s coronavirus math badly misses the point

Sen. Ron Johnson questioned the severity of the federally issued guidance in response to the coronavirus outbreak, and asked that people consider the economic risks the guidance could bring.

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson thinks people are panicking way too much about the coronavirus.

Here’s what he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert about the virus:

“I’m not denying what a nasty disease COVID-19 can be, and how it’s obviously devastating to somewhere between 1 and 3.4 percent of the population. But that means 97 to 99 percent will get through this and develop immunities and will be able to move beyond this. But we don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It’s a risk we accept so we can move about. We don’t shut down our economies because tens of thousands of people die from the common flu…

“…getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population (and) I think probably far less.”


Let’s unpack that.

If coronavirus is fatal to 1% of the US population of 331 million people, that would mean that 3.3 million people would die from it. If coronavirus is deadly to 3.4% of the total US population, that would mean more than 11 million people died from it.

Just for some context on those numbers:

* 5.8 million people live in Wisconsin

* Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for 647,000 deaths a year, according to the CDC. Cancer is second with 599,000 deaths.

* Roughly 620,000 American soldiers were killed in the Civil War

You can see then why Johnson’s comments — and the math behind them — are so bad. (“I’m having as candid and realistic a conversation with you as I possibly can,” Johnson told Gilbert by way of explaining his comments.)

Look, I do get what he is trying to say. That yes, coronavirus is a scary thing but it does not have the mortality rate of, say, Ebola. That most people who get it will recover and lead normal lives. That people die every day of all sorts of things around the country (and the world).

Which is all true! And totally fine news if you are in the 97%! But for the 3%? Yeah, not so good. And while 3% doesn’t sound like a lot, it is, as I noted above, more than 11 million Americans.

Johnson is, by training, an accountant. (He made much of the fact that he would be only the second accountant in Congress during his successful 2010 bid.) So it makes some sense that he is a numbers guy, and takes comfort in the fact that the numbers — viewed broadly — are on our side when it comes to the coronavirus. MOST people — even those who get it — will not die or even require hospitalization.

But these aren’t just numbers, which is what Johnson seems to forget. These are people. Grandparents. Aunts. Uncles. Dads. Moms. Lots and lots of them. And yes, even young people.

What the country is doing right now — social distancing, self-quarantining — is aimed not at ensuring that the bulk of health Americans don’t get the disease but rather that those for whom the coronavirus is most deadly aren’t exposed to it accidentally via us.

What Johnson fails to realize is that by citing a bunch of numbers to make the case that we are all going to get through this just fine, he’s missing the real, human toll this virus is taking.