We Have No Idea How Many People the Coronavirus Pandemic Will Kill

Jack Kurtz/ZUMA

Fight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.

It’s worth a quick note to point out that we no longer have any real idea of how deadly the coronavirus pandemic is going to be in the US. We’ve long since passed the point where the key to understanding the likely spread of the pandemic was a better understanding of the virus itself. What matters going forward is the countermeasures we put in place to stop its transmission routes.

Somebody should feel free to stop me if I’m wrong here, but we’re in terra incognita on that score. We’ve never had a widespread pandemic where we’ve put in place strict and widespread countermeasures, and that means we’re just guessing at how effective they are. The guess of an epidemiologist might be better than the guess of a blogger, but it’s still just a guess. We simply have no experience to draw on.

When this is all over we’ll spend years trying to assess which measures worked well and which ones didn’t. But even with time it will be difficult to untangle all the various threads and make sense of them. We don’t have that time now, so we’re flying blind.

This is the main reason you see estimates ranging wildly from 80,000 deaths to half a million. These size of the estimates all depend on which countermeasures you think we’ll adopt; how well they’ll work; how long we’ll keep them in place; and how seriously people will take them. Unfortunately, even the smartest epidemiologist in the world has a limited insight into things like that. So we just don’t know.

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.