A commuter on an empty train platform in New York, March 12.

If a modeling study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Washington state is right, Seattle two weeks ago was approximately in the position of Wuhan, China, on Jan. 1. The big difference, as the Fred Hutch guys also note, is that Seattle’s people have been saturated in warnings that Wuhan’s population only started receiving two months into the epidemic.

Stay home, avoid crowds, wash your hands religiously. A few days ago Italians seemed not to be heeding the advice. Now they are. Caitlin Rivers, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, tweeted this week that “event closures have an important role, but individual behavior changes are even more important.”

If this column has been telling you anything since January, it’s that the coronavirus was coming and protecting yourself is the best way to protect the country.

During the 2003 SARS panic in Hong Kong, routine cold and flu diagnoses declined sharply—influenza was down 88%—thanks partly to people practicing safer hygiene. Or take Japan right now: A harsh flu season appears to have abruptly reversed itself since Japanese citizens began adopting coronavirus precautions. Flu visits to doctors are down 60% in relation to past years. Though it’s still early, Japan has lost 19 people to the coronavirus—and 3,300 last year to the flu.

To state the obvious, measures that stop transmission of the flu also prevent transmission of coronavirus.

The U.S. did a bad job of being ready for Pearl Harbor, the Korean War, the Chinese entry into the Korean War, al Qaeda, Katrina, the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak. While the press expects government to be far-seeing and efficient, it never is. The stumbles over testing are especially demoralizing but the effect can be overstated. Flu tests are only 50% to 70% accurate: In the early days, we might have sorted through thousands of unrecognized flu cases without detecting a single coronavirus case.

Now that the virus is established, testing is crucial so people know whether they are carrying the new virus or the common cold. The markets will be able to price in the reality rather than their worst fears. Thousands of Americans will discover they have the disease without debilitating effect. But nobody needs to be tested to know staying home is a good idea right now even if you aren’t old or otherwise in a vulnerable category.

Remember, the stock market is telling us nothing about the coronavirus death rate. It’s telling us about corporate earnings in a context where curtailing economic activity is how we fight the virus. Unfortunately, a recession is part of the cure for an epidemic of communicable disease.

To repeat, the market meltdown is a function of how we are choosing to fight the virus—in ways that disrupt industry after industry, from airlines to restaurants, theme parks, hotels and sports leagues.

The World Health Organization has used the word “contain” from the start, but the meaning has evolved. Increasingly the goal has been slowing the disease’s progress to spread out the impact on health-care providers of those patients who react badly to the virus.

When Angela Merkel or your favorite Twitter virologist says 70% of humanity will have it eventually, they mean the virus will take its place among common respiratory infections. With the best of intentions, Dr. Anthony Fauci has linked his name to fatality rates equal to the flu’s or 10 times the flu’s (which would be about 1%). But notice that South Korea, one of the hard-hit countries, reports 0.6%. When it comes to such degrees of precision, you probably would want to tune out if you knew just how fuzzy the underlying flu extrapolations are.

For another day let’s save the question of whether the best way to protect those who most need protecting is to cancel televised NBA games.

The virus will be a wild card in the presidential race. If New York City (with 12 times as many people as Seattle and they can’t all telecommute) shuts down, it’s a different ballgame.

But also true: When the federal government finally gears up, it tends to smother problems in money. Refamiliarize yourself with the acronym MMT, for modern monetary theory. This is the idea, popular with economists on the left, that the U.S. lends itself right now to government printing and spending large amounts of money without inflation.

MMT is how Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders really expected to pay for Medicare for All. Whatever their differences, President Trump and his eventual Democratic rival will be of one mind on spending unlimited sums to cover Americans’ health-care bills, make up for lost income, prop up small businesses, etc.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2020 | Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.