Early this week, the total number of American deaths attributed to COVID-19 surpassed the death toll of the 9/11 attacks — 2,997. That moment, combined with the harrowing reality that we’re likely just past 1% mark in terms of likely U.S. casualties, has lead to some reflection on how we deal with these so called ‘generational moments’.
The Costs of 9/11
Let’s first take a look at the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. The terrorist attacks in 2001 took the lives of 2,997 Americans, per the official death toll. The estimated cost of damages done in that attack stands at about $55B. While there’s no question this loss of life was tragic, and admittedly inspired an unparalleled anger towards those who carried out, it’s worth examining the attacks next to the costs of our reactions.
According to Wikipedia — sources for each datapoint made readily available — the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have killed a total of 6,792 Americans. That means for every American killed in the terror attacks, we sent more than two more to be killed in the ensuing wars.
The economic cost of the post 9/11 wars is staggering. From a paper by the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs at Brown University, it is estimated the total expenditures for our military actions stemming from the 9/11 response will come it at around $6.4 trillion dollars. That’s just less than $20,000 per every citizen.
The merits of the War in Afghanistan are quite debatable, and the justifications for the War in Iraq are many times more problematic. That said, it is not the subject of this article to debate the merits of these actions — it is simply to be noted that the raw cost of our reaction was, objectively, many hundreds of time more than the attacks themselves.
Delayed Response to COVID-19
Without playing politics, it is clear now that the United States’ unwillingness to take swift and sweeping measures to control the spread of the novel coronavirus is going to greatly increase the damage done to our nation, both in terms of human loss and economic plight. While it’s pure speculation what the final numbers will look like, we can start to build some preliminary models by comparing our “curves” to that of nation’s that seem to have had more success in containment.
To keep the number of variables in this article to a minimum, especially as previously stated, this is all speculative models, we will compare the United States to just South Korea. To date, South Korea represents one the best responses to the pandemic, in terms of containment and mortality rate.
It is also worth noting that the United States and South Korea both reported their first case on the same day — January 20th. Since then, there have been few similarities between the two nations.
South Korean Success & Predictions
Note: In the name of creating easy to compare numbers, in this section I will follow each South Korean number with an “American Equivalent” number equal to ten times that of South Korean totals. While the population of South Korea is just less than 9 times that of the United States, this not insignificant ‘over calculation’ will serve to give all of our data points a wide benefit of the doubt for U.S. comparisons.
South Korea’s first case appeared on January 20, and they actually looked to have COVID-19 contained until “Patient 31”, who attended two church services and spread the virus to countless others, killing the chances the virus could be contained to just a few dozen cases.
One month after their first confirmed case, on February 20 South Korea had 94 confirmed cases (940 AE). Their peak came on March 3rd when they reported 851 (8,510 AE) new cases. To date, they have had 165 deaths (1,650 AE) With their curve “flattened”, their projections are among the best in the world.
While I am unable to find a projection on the total deaths expected in South Korea (likely due in part to the fact that the virus is already dwindling), it would seem incredibly unlikely that their total deaths will more than double. But, for the sake of outlier events and the fact so much of this is speculative, let’s say that South Korea sees five times the deaths as they currently have. That would put their total at 825 cases (8,250 AE).
An American Nightmare
Put simply, the U.S. didn’t respond like South Korea did. That has created a stark difference in the numbers.
Using the dates from above: on February 20, the U.S. had just 10 cases, meaning the virus did not spread nearly as quickly in its early. (The tragic implications of that realization later.) Our peak? That has not come yet, and probably will not for several more weeks. Our largest number of new cases to date is, of course, yesterday, where we reported 26,473. Compare that to the AE factor of 940 above, and you can quickly see how different the numbers get, even after compensating for population. Our peak will be at least ten times more than that of South Korea, and probably many times more than that.
In deaths, the numbers are no more kind to the United States. To date, we’ve lost 5,102 Americans to the virus. That’s already three times that of South Korea, adjusted for population. Once again, we are still accelerating and this factor will undoubtedly grow exponentially.
Finally we examine projected deaths. Without a scientific estimate available for South Korea, we multiplied current deaths by five (something quite unrealistic as they are now on a contained decline), giving us an AE of 8,250.
Conservative estimates for the United States now sit at six figures — 100,000. President Trump recently stated that he would consider it a job well done if our deaths were kept to one or two hundred thousand people. That means, per capita, we are expecting anywhere from 12 to 24 times the deaths that South Korea will face. If we do a good job from here on out. No telling if we continue to lag in our efforts.
A Delayed Response
Without pointing fingers, our response was badly delayed an inadequate. Instead of doing what South Korea did — tracking transmissions and testing those who had contact with known cases — we, more or less, crossed our fingers.
Perhaps more maddening is how long we did that for. Our confirmed cases didn’t break 100 until March 3, when South Korea was already in the midst of nearly 5,500 cases. Despite this, South Korea has peaked and is in decline, while we face a horrifying next few months.
The Difference Between 9/11 and COVID-19
In the months to follow the 9/11 attacks, emotions ran high. When the War in Afghanistan started, it was done with near unanimous support. It’s not until decades later when we can examine those moments and events for what may have been a more appropriate, effective response. As the timeless cliche goes. hindsight is 20/20.
But the COVID-19 pandemic is much different. The medical community knew this was going to be an incredibly dangerous bug. We saw it coming, we saw nations, one by one, get hit, and struggle with containment. And, to paraphrase the great political comic Lewis Black, the government sat watching it as if it were a made for TV movie: ‘Oh shit, I didn’t know it was on tonight!’
We should always be willing to learn from our mistakes. We should always be willing to judge the actions of ourselves, our government, and our culture against what we now know, to be better for the next dilemma. While hindsight is 20/20, we can certainly take lessons from the past to make our future brighter.
But what happens when foresight was 20/20, and we still fail?