I’m heading to Japan again for work next week, and have been told that I need to wear a mask at the most important business meeting I’m attending, as this is now mandatory at the company we’re visiting, as a precaution against coronavirus / Covid-19. So I’m just testing my mask out here! Several friends have expressed concern about me going there (thank you!) so I just thought I’d share some of my analysis on why I think it’s safe to go – in fact I think Japan may well be one of the places where you’re least likely to get Covid-19 at the moment, as they are taking far more precautions than most places.
Overall I estimate that I’m around 5,000 times more likely to die in a car crash in the US this year than I am to die from Covid-19 as a result of this trip. How did I come up with that? Number of deaths from car accidents in the US annually (2018 number) = 36560, population of US = 327m, so that’s 112 deaths per million people, or a 1 in 9000 chance, in round numbers. Current number of known Covid-19 cases in Japan = 228, population = 127m, number of cases per million = 1.8. Estimated mortality rate for someone in their 50s without other health complications is 1.3%, and for various reasons that may well be an overestimate. So estimated number of deaths per million for someone like me is 1.8 x 0.013 = 0.0234, or a one in 43 million chance.
Even though the number of cases there is really very low, Japan is taking very strict measures to try to avoid it escalating. They have closed all schools until the end of March. Many companies have told their employees to work from home for the time being. There was already a strong culture of people wearing medical masks in public, and I’m sure that has increased with the current situation. As I mentioned, one of the companies I’m visiting has a rule that everyone has to wear masks for work. While there are mixed reports on the benefits of wearing masks, and I have seen a majority of material suggesting that that they don’t do much to prevent a healthy person wearing one from catching the virus, and might actually make you more likely to catch it, there is a strong consensus that they do help to prevent a sick person from passing on the virus. So if everyone, or almost everyone, is wearing a mask then that should definitely help prevent the spread.
In summary, while I think coronavirus is something serious and it’s important to take sensible precautions and to try to prevent its spread (though not that likely to succeed unfortunately), I also think we need to be rational and not panic, assess risks sensibly, and carry on with life as normal if the risks aren’t high in a given situation, like this case.
As a side note, it’s more or less impossible to get medical masks here at the moment – I tried several places in Denver that were all sold out, and all the options on Amazon had a 3+ week delivery time. I also heard that a major hospital in Denver is low on masks, partly because their main supplier is in Wuhan, which is ironic. I was fortunate to be able to beg a couple of masks from a friend who got them a while ago.