Is the 'cure worse than the disease?' Health stats from the Great Depression show it's not.
Photo by Sonder Quest on Unsplash

We've been "locked down" for nearly two months, and people are are understandably tired of it. Millions of Americans are out of work, which means many have also lost their employer-provided health insurance. Our economy has slowed to a crawl, businesses are shuttered, and everyone is worried about the sustainability of it all.

"We can't let the cure be worse than the disease," people say. The president himself has repeated this line, the implication being that the impact of the lockdowns will be worse than the impact of the virus. Just today in his press briefing the president mentioned suicides and drug overdoses as tragic consequences of the lockdowns, stating that more Americans could die of those causes than the virus if we fall into an extended economic depression.



Is that true, though? While no one can predict the future, death statistics and economic history in the U.S. do not support that idea at all. Not even close.

Let's start with suicides. During the two worst years of the Great Depression, 20,000 Americans per year took their own lives. That's tragic—but it's nowhere near the number of Americans that have died of COVID-19 just in the past month.

Screenshot via Worldometers

Of course, the U.S. population has nearly tripled since the Great Depression, so we can't compare that number directly. But even if we triple those Great Depression suicides to 60,000 a year to account for population change, that's still not as many Americans as have died of COVID-19 in just the past 5 weeks.

Using a different calculation, there was a 25% increase in suicides during the Great Depression. With ~48,000 suicides in the U.S. in 2018, a 25% increase would also put the annual number at 60,000. No suicide number is a good number, of course. But by no math in the universe is an extra 12,000 deaths per year anywhere near the 80,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19 in the past two months.

Our COVID-19 deaths have averaged around 2000 per day for weeks while under lockdown. At no time in our history, through bad economic depressions and horrific world wars, has 2000 Americans died of suicide per day. Even if our suicide numbers tripled—a 12 times greater increase than during the worst years of the Great Depression—that would still be less than 400 people dying of suicide per day. A terrible number, but not nearly as terrible as 2000 per day.

What about drug overdoses? Well, that's a little trickier to gauge. I've not seen any statistics about drug overdoses during the Great Depression, and we already had an opioid crisis flourishing before the pandemic hit. I imagine it's probably harder for people to get the drugs to feed an addiction right now, so I'm not convinced that there would be an enormous increase in drug overdoses. But for the sake of argument, let's say drug overdoses doubled. Highly unlikely, but let's go with it.

In 2018, the last year for which we have statistics, 184 people per day died of drug overdose. If we double that, we're talking around 370 people per day—still less than one-fourth the number of Americans dying of COVID-19 per day in the past month.

Even added together, those extreme suicide and drug overdose scenarios don't add up to our current COVID-19 situation. And once again—those numbers are with lockdowns in place.

What about starvation, though? Surely millions would die of starvation or malnutrition in a tanked economy, right? Well, no—for a couple of reasons.

1) The reality is if anyone starves to death in the U.S., a country that has the ability to produce more than enough food to feed our population, that's a mismanagement of resources, not an inevitable outcome of an economic crash.

2) Americans didn't die of starvation in large numbers during the Great Depression.

In fact—are you ready for a rather mind-blowing statistic—the overall health of Americans didn't decline during the Great Depression at all. It improved.

People lived years longer during the Depression. Life expectancy rose. Mortality rates dropped in every category (except suicide) across practically every demographic.

In fact, this pattern shows up consistently during economic booms and recessions. More people die—and die at younger ages—during economic booms. Vice versa during recessions. Counterintuitive? Yes. But that's what the data shows. (Here's the 2009 study that shows these trends during the Great Depression.)

We could debate the reasons for this, but it doesn't really matter. The point is, if the "cure" is a lockdown that results in an economic depression and the "disease" is the virus spreading unchecked, we have no evidence that the cure is or could be worse than the disease, at least not in terms of death counts.

Now clearly, there are huge problems with a tanked economy. Mental health issues increase. Life is hard. People struggle and suffer and we certainly should not minimize that. BUT...

Mass death and mass illness also cause suffering and mental health issues, while also hurting the economy.

I've seen people say we open back up, shoot for herd immunity, and just accept the fact that people will die. But that notion completely ignores the economic impact of having a big chunk of the population too sick to work. As we hear more and more people describe their COVID-19 journeys, it's becoming clear that even infected people who don't have to be hospitalized can still be very ill for weeks.

Let's do some quick herd immunity math. Reaching herd immunity means 70% of the population would have to get the virus. (Some say 60%, some say 80 or 90%—let's go with the middle.) That's 229 million people in the U.S. We don't have a good enough hold on this virus to know how many people have already have it or how many would be asymptomatic, but a current guess for asymptomatic cases is 25% to 50%. Let's go with the higher.

That would mean 114.5 million Americans being symptomatically ill. It's impossible to know how severe each person's case would be, but if even half of those with symptoms got flu-level ill, that would be 56 million people too sick to work for weeks. Some would have lingering health issues afterward to boot. What would that kind of mass illness to do to the economy?

And we haven't even gotten to the people dying yet. We don't have an accurate mortality rate, but let's go with a conservative 0.5% death rate (meaning 99.5% of people who get it, survive it). We're still talking 1,135,000 deaths if we shoot for 70% herd immunity at that death rate. That basically means we'd all know people who died of this disease.

I'm pretty sure mass grieving over a huge death toll in a short period of time isn't great for the economy, either. (Perhaps instead of deciding how much death and illness we're willing to tolerate, we could take this opportunity to fundamentally rethink how our economy works? Just a thought.)

Granted, all of these numbers are based on data that keeps changing as we learn more about the virus and its impact. We don't know enough yet to say anything for sure. We don't even know if people are truly immune yet. We do know the virus is real, and that it's more contagious and more deadly than the flu. Everything else is a best guess.

Essentially, there are no good options before us at the moment that don't involve great losses of one kind or another. But by no historical or statistical measure do we have evidence that the cure worse than the disease—at least with the data we have right now.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

via Anthony Crider / Flickr

Dozens of "White Lives Matter" rallies were scheduled to take place across America on Sunday. The events were scheduled in semi-private, encrypted chats on the Telegram app between Nazis, Proud Boys, and other right-wing extremists.

The organizers said the rallies would make "the whole world tremble."

However, the good news is that hardly any white supremacists showed up. In fact, the vast majority of people who did show up were counter-protesters.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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