The last time I teased this there was actually no good news, but this time there really is just a small glimmer of hope for the near future, as well as a couple of benefits to our current, abysmal state of affairs. Let’s start with a couple of the beneficial results of this forced lockdown.
Currently, somewhere around 90% of Americans are under some sort of stay-at-home or shelter-in-place lockdown order. With a population of about 330 million, that’s 297 million people. According to data provided by the NHTSA, in a normal year, Americans drive an average of 13,500 miles, which equates to about 1125 miles per month. Now, April and May tend to be slightly higher than average driving months, with the summer months significantly higher and the winter months significantly lower than that average. We’ll call a typical April average to be about 1150 miles.
The United States has approximately 685 drivers for every 1000 people, a number that is decreasing from the last report due to the prevalence of ride sharing. In a typical recent year, those drivers would clock up 3.223 trillion miles on U.S. roads. Obviously right now, that number is significantly less.
If 90% of people are under orders to stay home, and 90% of them are following those orders at least 90% of the time, taking into account trips to the grocery store, the doctor, driving aimlessly around, and just plain idiocy that is occurring on a daily basis, that means that Americans are currently driving only about 27% of the miles we would normally drive. That means, if this were extrapolated to a full year, we would drive 873.4 billion miles. Obviously, this isn’t going to last for a year, but let’s take a look at just the month of April.
In a normal April, we would drive approximately 270 billion road miles, but this April, Americans will probably drive closer to 73 billion miles. We are most likely going to drive around 200 billion fewer miles for every month this goes on. A reasonable time estimate for analysis would be mid-March to mid-May, so we’ll call it two months of basic lockdowns, and 400 billion fewer road miles driven.
Where am I going with this?
The death rate from all automobile accidents in this country is right about 1.13 deaths per every 100 million miles traveled. With 400 billion fewer miles traveled, that results in right around 4500 fewer deaths over these two months. That means that there are 4500 people walking around this country right now who would already be dead, or would have been dead in the next six weeks or so, who now won’t be. And these are, for the most part, young, healthy Americans who would have died tragically. Many of them would have been children; in fact, about 20% of them on average would have been fourteen years old or younger.
That’s 900 children walking around this country right now who would have been dead by Mother’s Day were it not for Covid-19.
Now, I know that we’re going to lose more than 4500 people from the coronavirus; probably a lot more if the models hold true. If you’re looking for a silver lining though, this is a pretty good one to grasp onto. Most of the dead from Covid-19 are the elderly and infirm. If you were God, what multiple would you allow for the deaths of those aged 70+ in exchange for the lives of those aged under 14? This is a tough, tough question, and impossible to answer outside of the abstract as no two lives have the same meaning, and a value is very difficult to assign. There are some who would say that all lives are equal, and others who would probably say that a young life is worth at least ten elderly lives. I don’t know the answer, but, again, the silver lining is there if you choose to see it. This year, we very well might see the fewest traffic-related fatalities in this country since the 1940s.
Another statistic in the same vein as lives saved due to fewer auto-related deaths, is those that will be saved due to decreased level of noise pollution from both vehicles and airplanes. This is a tough one to nail an exact number to, but it may surprise you to learn (it certainly surprised me) that the World Health Organization has calculated that at least one million healthy life-years are lost every year in western European countries because of environmental noise, with cardiovascular disease contributing to the vast majority of these deaths. In America, that number may be even higher. Most of those deaths are the result of high blood pressure, heart attacks and coronary heart disease. It is thought that continuous noise, even at a low level, triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which damages blood vessels over time.
The decrease in noise pollution for those who live near busy roads or in crowded cities may save thousands of additional lives, or at the very least extend those lives by orders of magnitude longer than the shutdown will last.
A third benefit is the amazing things happening with air quality right now. Take a look at this chart of air quality levels a month ago, when most of China was still in shutdown and most of the rest of the world was still living normally.
And now look at the air quality readings today.
You can see that in Asia, air quality has decreased tremendously today with China ramping back up in its major cities, air quality there going from only a few areas of moderately unhealthy, to many areas of extremely dangerous: the orange spots to the maroon colored spots. In America, most of the country is in the green, with the yellow, elevated risk levels switching away from the coasts in March, to the center of the country in April, with the coastal states shutting down and quite a few southern interior states continuing life as normal.
Earth observing satellites have detected a significant reduction in nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere, and this reduction is a direct result of drastically lower emissions from automobiles around the world. Not only does this make breathing—something we all enjoy—much more pleasant, but it is also going to save a lot of lives. How many? Well, according to at least one analyst, Marshall Burke, a professor in Stanford’s Earth-system science department, a pandemic-related reduction in particulate matter in the atmosphere has probably saved the lives of 4,000 young children and 73,000 elderly adults in China over the two months they were shut down. He thinks that worldwide, around twenty times the lives lost as a direct result of the Covid-19 virus will be saved by the decrease in air pollution, at least in those areas where air pollution is typically at its worst. The article linked above is pretty fascinating to read.
In addition to the lives that will be saved, the doubling time of the fatality rate seems to be slowing in many parts of the world, the United States included. Take a look at this chart:
This is the linear line of fatalities as of yesterday when the United States ended the day with 8451 total deaths, an increase of 1350 from the previous day. As bad as that is, projections from just last week showed that we were on track to hit 10,000 deaths by the end of the day on April 4th. We’re probably going to hit that repugnant number tomorrow, but adding two days to the doubling time is a really good thing. It means—cautiously speaking—that the pandemic may be slowing.
Although it’s difficult to see the decreasing rate from the severely vertical fatality line in the above linear chart of fatalities, let’s look at the logarithmic chart.
This chart shows a track of fatalities on a logarithmic scale. Basically, this is a convenient way of looking at the doubling rate of the deaths. A 45-degree line from left to right would be true doubling, meaning that it would take the same number of days to go from 1000 to 10,000 deaths and from 10,000 deaths to 100,000 deaths as it took to go from 10 deaths to 100, or from 100 to 1000. We don’t want to see a 45-degree or sharper angle to the line when we look at this chart.
As you can see, while we did see a line that was very close to 45-degrees between 100 and 1000 deaths, right here near the top, circled below, over the last four days, this line has really flattened out. I am cautiously optimistic here. Cautious because four data points is not very many from which to draw any real conclusions, and there are many signs that point to things getting worse in the days to come. However, if we’re looking for encouragement, this is it.
When we do hit 10k deaths tomorrow morning, what will be very telling will be the time it takes to reach 20k deaths. If that doesn’t happen next week, we will be able to say with a much better sense of certainty that we have reached the peak of this pandemic in the United States. Let’s hope that’s true.