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Ron Johnson's unsettling perspective on the coronavirus

The GOP senator believes the coronavirus is a death sentence for "maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population." Perhaps he hasn't thought this through
Image: Sen. Ron Johnson, R-WI, speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 14, 2019.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-WI, speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 14, 2019.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

One of the unique challenges facing the United States in recent weeks is that we, unlike most modern Western countries, don't have a system of paid sick-leave. It raised the prospect of unknown numbers of Americans contracting the coronavirus, feeling ill, but feeling economic pressure to go to work anyway.

A measure negotiated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week took steps to address this, but the new law's reach is limited. For Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), one of only eight senators to vote against the bill, the efforts themselves were misplaced.

The Wisconsin Republican told USA Today this week that he's worried about "incentivizing people to not show up for work." Johnson added, "People are going to have to work. People do need to recognize the fact that this is not Ebola. This is not MERS. It's not quite the seasonal flu. But we have to keep things in perspective and we got to keep our economy."

Did I mention that Republican leaders on Capitol Hill made Johnson the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee?

With the New York Times, the GOP senator went a little further.

"One thing the press has not covered at all is the people who have really recovered," said Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Republican ally of Mr. Trump's. "Right now all people are hearing about are the deaths. I'm sure the deaths are horrific, but the flip side of this is the vast majority of people who get coronavirus do survive."

Johnson went on to tell the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "I'm not denying what a nasty disease COVID-19 can be, and how it's obviously devastating to somewhere between 1 and 3.4 percent of the population. But that means 97 to 99 percent will get through this and develop immunities and will be able to move beyond this. But we don't shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It's a risk we accept so we can move about. We don't shut down our economies because tens of thousands of people die from the common flu."

He added that coronavirus has a far higher fatality rate than the seasonal flu, but said, "getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population (and) I think probably far less."

Oh my.

Perhaps Ron Johnson hasn't fully thought through the math. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are currently over 329 million Americans. If, to use the senator's phrasing, the coronavirus were to kill "maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population," that would mean the death of over 9 million Americans. If the 3.4 percent figure is high, and it turns out that the virus is fatal to 1 percent of the population, that's still over 3 million American deaths.

What's more, there are related considerations. As those millions seek care, hospitals would be pushed well beyond their capacities, making it impossible for medical professionals to treat everyone else with serious illnesses unrelated to the coronavirus.

It's a "perspective" I hope the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee will keep in mind.