Taleb Says If You’re Not Panicking, You’re A Psychopath

Taleb Says If You’re Not Panicking, You’re A Psychopath

Another full coronavirus update will be posted tomorrow morning.

You wouldn’t think a beefy guy like Nassim Taleb would be a screaming sissy. His is, though. He has made himself this way—and helps make us all this way—by being obsessed by the precautionary principle.

This is a philosophy (as it has become) which demands its holders imagine the worst possible threats to themselves and to humanity. And then agitating the populace and government to protect against these threats.

The likelihood of the threat is immaterial. The sole criterion is the cost of the threat. The zombie apocalypse is not likely, conditional on any genuine evidence I have ever heard of. Yet if it happens, it would kill off most or all of us and destroy all civilization. This threat, if it happens, produces the greatest possible material cost.

The cost of anything would we could to protect against this threat pales in comparison to what would happen if the threat materialized. Therefore, only a psychopath would stand in the way of erecting barriers to this threat.

So lock everybody down, make all practice extreme social distancing at all times. By which I mean we allow no human contact whatsoever. Listen: how do you know the next guy you touch isn’t going to pass on the zombification cootie? You don’t know. That he could pass it is sufficient. We must stop the zombie apocalypse cold—or risk utter destruction.

You may say—well, what you may say likely has to be censored. Filtered, what you may say is that this is nuts, the height of irrationality.

Taleb doesn’t think so. He said (my emphasis):

Under such conditions it becomes selfish, even psychopathic, to act according to what is called “rational” behavior — to make one’s own immediate rankings of risk conflict with those of society, even generate risks for society. This is similar to other tragedies of the common, except that there is life and death.

Our brave squid ink eater didn’t have the zombie apocalypse in mind when he wrote that. He meant the coronavirus apocalypse. But if he is to remain consistent with his philosophy, he has to apply it to any threat, even asinine ones.

That quotation was taken from Taleb and Joseph Norman’s one page paper “Ethics of Precaution: Individual and Systemic Risk“.

Assume a risk of a multiplicative viral epidemic, still in its early stages. The risk for an individual to catch the virus is very low, lower than other ailments. It is therefore “irrational” to panic (react immediately and as a priority). But if she or he does not panic and act in an ultra-conservative manner,they will contribute to the spread of the virus and it will become a severe source of systemic harm.

Hence one must “panic” individually (i.e., produce what seems to an exaggerated response) in order to avoid systemic problems, even where the immediate individual payoff does not appear to warrant it.

This is not the traditional definition of panic, which is to overact and run about screeching like a little girl who can’t find her dolly; that is, to act irrationally.

In any case, their “multiplicative viral epidemic” fits the zombie apocalypse better than the spread of a souped-up common cold virus. In the zombie apocalypse everybody is at risk, because everybody once bit will seek to pass on the zombification cootie by trying to bite others.

For the coronavirus, it is only a guess, and not that good a guess, that everybody is at risk, or that everybody will pass it on. It could pass around like a cold or flu virus, peaking up here and there, sparing most, and killing some in clusters (colds kill, too, but rarely), and perhaps recurring at later dates.

The flu does this now, but this isn’t reported breathlessly every hour for months on end.

If coronavirus does recur, like the flu or the common cold, what then? Shut down the world forever? No effort spared to save even a single human life? It is Talebism to insist upon over-reaction as a matter of official policy.

Taleb and Norman speak of “severe societal breakdown”, which they meant would come about by the treatment of coronavirus. This would be so only if the treatment reaches zombie-apocalypse proportions. Which didn’t even happen at the Wuhan Epicenter. I quote myself:

In Wuhan itself, the City of Doom, some 2,446 souls departed their fleshly existence earlier than expected. Google tells us the city has between 11 and 19 million, depending on whether you count the entire metro area as “the city”.

The city had 49,995 cases. The case rate was 0.26% to 0.45%, depending on what China called “the city”. The total dead rate was 0.01% to 0.02%. The case dead rate was 4.9%.

True, hospitals were hard hit at the peak of the crisis, and many suffered under local quarantines—quarantines not put in place to the same extent or at all in other Chinese cities, which were still spared. Sad as a few thousand deaths are, this was not a “severe societal breakdown”, at least not a permanent one.

What kind of “severe societal breakdown” would happen if entire states, and even nations, are locked down for months? How many reduced to poverty? How large a growth in government? How much bigger would the oligarchs grow, since only they could survive?

There is no point in evading the hard question of how many lives lost to illness we trade for freedom. We answer this question every day. We allow people to spread the flu freely, knowing it will kill—and has killed maybe 25,000 so far in the States this year alone. We allow people to strap themselves behind the wheels of a motor vehicle, which has killed even more than the flu.

Holders of the precautionary principle says coronavirus could kill or maim all of us. A more calm and sober view says not hardly.

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  1. Felix Rigidus

    Not to put to fine a point to it.
    It is astonishing that Taleb ignores all risk for our way of life that a near total shutdown of the economy due to a “ethical panic” as he advocates brings.
    But then again, I might be too harsh. Perhaps he has thought about what happens to the economy when we follow his sage advice and its ramifications for the survival of our society and come to the conclusion that it would be close to zero. Undoubtedly he came to that conclusion be meditating on the impact on society if he were to stop doing whatever it is he is doing and multiplying this be 1 billion. It still was zero.

    (I apologize for posting this double, but since I panicked and posted this in the wrong thread first, hopefully you can forgive me to get it posted in the correct thread as well.)

  2. There’s a Black Swan risk that Taleb is a self-promoting, deluded tool who blathers on for no potential benefit except to himself, and that he’s discovered a unique niche that fills some strange psychic need for his band of deluded followers.

    In order to mitigate that risk, to follow the precautionary principle, I’ll totally ignore the babbling blather that Taleb spews.

    That should protect me from the potential dire consequences of the Taleb Blathering Black Swan event.

    And applying Taleb’s sacred precautionary principle thus, I’ll be freed up to actually take rational precautions, based on reality, and not Taleb’s fevered imagination of doom.

  3. “’21 Million Fewer Cellphone Users in China May Suggest a High CCP*** Virus Death Toll’.”
    “***Epoch Times designates Corona Virus as China Communist Party virus.”

    The Communist Chinese are very good at information warfare, lying, cheating, stealing. And they have practiced this dark art for a long time. It would probably be pretty difficult to hide 21 million dead (as this story appears to imply).

    First, you must consider the source, and their motivations. The Epoch Times is a media outlet jointly owned and operated by neocons and Falun Gong. The Falun Gong is the meditation-based Chinese cult that is suppressed by the Communists. Lashing up with neocons vaulted the outlet into American fake “conservative” circles.


    While seemingly admirable for their resistance to the totalitarian Chinese dictatorship, if you don’t have a dog in the fight, you might want to not get in the middle of it. And that’s just what Epoch Times is–a combatant in a dog fight. Their product has proved to be as biased and manipulative as the communists. Just as the neocons urge forever war in the Middle East for the benefit of their foreign sponsors, so do the Falun Gong urge war on China, for their benefit.

    Getting involved in others’ civil wars has not been a real winning strategy for the USA.

    The 21 million cell phone story is likely missing context. Could it be that factory and other migrant workers are not renewing their SIM cards that they use when they travel to their jobs? Or another related reason, that is not obvious to foreigners who don’t understand their ways of doing things?

  4. jim fedako

    I assume Taleb has priced his assets accordingly. With no future, there are no future returns to consider, so prices are zero.

    But, being a magnanimous psychopath, all give him $1 for all. Anyone have his contact info so that I can wrap up this deal?

    Look, even $1 now beats any of his apocalyptic scenarios. So he would have to take it.

  5. Nate

    I often wonder if Taleb holds a lot of short positions and ‘encourages’ the smart set to panic for his own gain. But that would be a conspiracy theory.

  6. S. F. Griffin

    Steve Sailer:

    Professor Taleb comes from the once-ruling Christian elite of Lebanon…When people ask him, “What’s the worst that can happen?” he has many replies. But I think deep down, the answer that set him on his life work as our leading theoretician of disaster would be: “How does 15 years of civil war sound?”

    Should we attribute to reason that which can be explained by formative trauma?

  7. Becky

    I sometimes think generalists do a better job of practical thinking. Maybe focusing only on the corona virus means you lose sight of everything else.

  8. Sheri

    The Precautionary Principle says we all need to be dead, because dead is the only safe place. If you live, things can threaten. Interesting philosophy these people have.

    More than anything, the PP says “do it MY way”. It cares nothing about truth, harm, risk, none of that. Its is a selfish, nasty, evil way of viewing the world, used by tyrants and tyrant wannabes.

  9. Brian (bulaoren)

    Has anyone demanded a peer reviewed study to determine how well dismantling the constitution works against coroner virus?

  10. Michael Dowd

    Sheri–PP is what Steve Bannon this very minute is advocating on War Room Pandemic, i.e, do what China did by closing down our country for as much as 45 days. This is an insane proposal, particularly as he wants to make everyone whole with government cash. Even if this were to be done there is no guarantee what the economy would look like after. And besides what are the folks going to do with their money as there is nothing much to buy. I see it for many as a 45 day party. Not good I would think.

    The right thing is admit the over reaction and tell everyone the #1 priority is saving the economy.

  11. Becky

    I agree and how to do that while saving face can be a problem. The press builds experts up to god-like abilities. Fauci has become a national celebrity, and his pronouncements are treated like Moses handing down the tablets. If he said never mind, I put the decimal in the wrong place, it ruins his life.

    I’m guessing a lot of black market, under the table activity will ramp up. People will do what they have to to survive, virus be damned.

    I’ve also noticed the more comfortable people want the most draconian measures to get rid of a threat that is scaring them.

  12. Walt

    Using knowledge gained in logic and inference from Briggs’ “Breaking the Law of Averages,” this blog, and data from open sources, I was able to calm myself down about this with BOTEC. Right now, the virus is on track to kill fewer people than the seasonal flu. We have taken measures to slow its spread, but we have to ask ourselves if crippling the world economy was worth beating a flu season, especially when the government allows people to die or be killed so many other ways (ie, abortion).

    Here a Christian pastor with no scientific training uses inductive logic to come to very similar conclusions I have. I’m finally starting to see how extremely important logic is to all other thinking.
    Another Silicon Valley data scientist concludes the same and is reviled by an “expert.”

    If anything, this incident is going to greatly contribute to the overthrow of “experts” and managerialism. We’re all going to simply get tired of it. Those who don’t will commit suicide.

  13. Darin

    I’m not sure you’re being fair to Taleb. (I never in a million years thought I’d type those words.) It’s clear that he’s taking poetic license in his use of the term “panic.” He even put it in quotes and explained his meaning parenthetically so you’d get the point, as you quoted from his paper:

    “…one must ‘panic’ individually (i.e., produce what seems to an exaggerated response)….”

  14. Fredo

    I had a very interesting conversation with my son (25) when this all started
    back in January. I pointed out that what the Chinese were doing in Wuhan
    was counterproductive and would only delay the spread. I brought up the
    concept of herd immunity and that with these types of viruses that was the
    only thing that eventually brought them under control. I was told in no
    uncertain terms I didn’t know what I was talking about and that herd immunity
    only referred to the number of people in a population that had been vaccinated
    thus reducing exposure to the non-vaccinated population, and since there was
    no vaccine for this virus the best thing was quarantine. Sure enough I got
    online and every site had this altered definition which only referred to herd
    immunity in the context of the number of people who had been vaccinated
    in a population.

    All I can say is George Orwell was completely right he who controls the past
    controls the future and there has been a massive effort to alter the meaning
    of herd immunity. Now very sensibly we’re hearing out of Great Britain this
    is their course and as the virus spreads through a population and the numbers
    go up eventually the virus runs out of hosts. Not only that but as I recall from
    H.S. bio there is also a weakening effect on these pathogens as they pass
    through any given population and are subjected to the immune system’s
    of many hosts and more than likely are genetically altered becoming less
    lethal. There no advantage to the virus in killing the host as their sole objective
    is replication and when the host dies they die.

  15. Michael Dowd

    Becky–I agree 100% with what you said. People are being normalized or is it anesthetized to the madness around them. They are becoming as insane as our leader. The only antidote to all of this is a return to God and His Commandments. Right now we seem to love our Devil’s Paradise.

  16. Kalif

    ‘I’ve also noticed the more comfortable people want the most draconian measures to get rid of a threat that is scaring them.’

    How difficult is it to comprehend that this new virus needs a host to live on? If we have ‘draconian measures’ for a shorter period of 2-4 weeks, it will have less influence on global economy than half-a** measures that drag on over couple of years. We can eliminate it within weeks. People take that much time in form of useless consumerist vacations every year.

  17. Becky

    Will the damn of worry/anxiety break in time to salvage the great number of lives altered? This is the most insane thing I have ever seen our country do. Good time for a war keeps popping up in my mind. Something has to change the momentum of the panic more than the virus. I have met more people that think this is overblown, yet we all mind these draconian orders.
    I don’t know how to articulate it, but the past few years of plenty and worry about transgenders, pronouns, etc. seems to me we don’t really have a lot of problems. If this is the biggest worry the average American has, life has been very, very good.

  18. Kalif,

    Wow! The new virus needs a host to live on?

    Better update those statistics, Dr. Briggs – we have some shocking new data!

  19. Josh Postema

    “We can eliminate it within weeks.”

    Yeah, until one person without symptoms infects a few friends and we get to start all over again.

  20. Becky

    It isn’t difficult at all to understand, the flu and other communicable diseases have been doing that forever. As the numbers come in and more information is gathered and anaylized, something that is common is that this virus is not completely unknown. It has relatives, and appears that it is coming in less deadly than SARS or MERS. SARS and MERS did not spread as far. The farther the spread, the less deadly the virus. It is counterintuitive, especially if you watch science fiction movies.

    I don’t think it can be eliminated, it is too widespread.
    A lot of people will be hurt more by the shut downs than will be saved. And people will still be dealing with other health issues.

  21. Walt


    Check your wordpress spam filter

  22. JTLiuzza

    As Greta von Hindenberg or whatever her name is said, “I want you to panic.” Of course. People in a panic will agree to all sorts of things.

    Man made global warming/cooling/climate change… and the consequential end to all life wasn’t quite cutting it. Too abstract. Credibility factor and a tough sell.

    Global pandemic with an actual, in real time, death toll and a media to hype it through the roof? Nice. It may only be temporary for as long as it can be milked, but the damage to the economy and to peoples lives was deep and swift. And more important, people the world over are conditioned to go along with global edict, regardless the cost. Sort of like Bergoglio’s “we must obey the United Nations” shtick.

  23. jim fedako

    Kalif –

    COVID-19 report from the frontlines.

    A good friend who is a doctor in Florida had to tell a patient on Thursday she had cancer. Scary enough for the woman.

    But then the woman had to hear that no course of action could be guaranteed due to medical resources being directed to a virus that has only been diagnosed in 830 Floridians.

    That is an real-life example of the other side of the COVID panic.

  24. Sander van der Wal

    In the hardest-hit region in Italy 3 out of 4 deaths were because of Corona last week, or so I was told. They are burying the death 24/7. The cementary of Bergamo has no more room for more burials.

    This is like a tsunami. The average wave height over one year is hardly increased, but that one big wave will kill society.

  25. jim fedako

    Sander van der Wal –

    If you believe what you say, then price your assets accordingly. I’ll send you $5 for everything you have. Better to take the $5 now than wait until the wave peaks in front of you. At least you can use the money to enjoy your last loaf of bread.

    Deal? Or are you just fear-mongering?

  26. Fredo

    These pathogens have been around since the beginning of time and over
    the course of human existence have killed hundreds of millions if not
    billions. Despite that we’re all still here and will be here long after the
    wuwuflu runs its course. During the Dark Ages plague killed up to
    30% of populations across Europe. What did people do they continued
    to plow the fields, harvest the crops, cut the wood, keep the peace,
    turn to God, and take out the dead. There was also much panic and fear
    to go around but they knew that survival depended on keeping their
    heads and doing what they needed to do to stay alive as long as their
    health permitted. They were entirely dependent on their natural
    immune systems though they didn’t even know what it was, or how it
    worked, and we still don’t.

  27. jim fedako

    Fredo –

    No, no, no!

    During the plague, the masses huddled in their tiny huts, doing no work whatsoever. In fact, it was illegal to do any work.

    How did they survive, you ask? The kings and lords handed them script to purchase all the necessities that weren’t being produced. It’s a sort of magic, but it solved the crisis.

    (sarcasm, of course)

  28. Kip Hansen

    We have gone off the deep end — in order to protect society from an economic and social breakdown — the governments of States and localities have MANDATED the destruction of the economy and forbidden maintenance of social structure.


    [There was and is a better way….]

  29. Chester Draws

    In the hardest-hit region in Italy 3 out of 4 deaths were because of Corona last week, or so I was told. They are burying the death 24/7. The cementary of Bergamo has no more room for more burials.

    Seriously? “or so I was told”. You’re going to run with shutting down the world based on an anecdote of doubtful providence?

    The Precautionary Principle is out of hand.

    I’d put money that Bergamo cemetary is hemmed in by Bergamo, and it rarely has enough room for burials. Most inner city cemetaries are like that.

  30. OldCurmudgeon

    >the precautionary principle…demands its holders imagine the worst possible threats…And then agitating the populace and government to protect against these threats.

    The problem is most people apply the principle incorrectly. The thing they miss is that there are thousands of potential black-swan catastrophies; the environmental movement alone has spun out dozens of different ones. Then there are biologics, space, man-caused, etc.

    When presented with a multi-spectrum threat profile like this, the one thing you *must* not do is become fixated on one threat, and then commit all of your resources to preventing it. Instead, the proper response is to maximize flexibility / readiness and then observe. That is, conserve your resources, develop cabilities, etc., not crater the economy to prevent whatever is in the current news cycle.

  31. Ken

    Taleb, etc conclude that an ethical course of action is for all to participate individually and systemically – the last para in the essay sums up. That is, support social distancing etc with or without Govt mandates.

    Knowing that coronavirus19 is readily contagious (with no warning signs) and deadly well above average, crippling too (lung fibrosis that may not heal in survivors of severe reaction) behavior by college students across the world to openly flaunt the risks and go out of their way to do so DOES qualify as deeply reckless if not wholly psychopathic behavior given their particularly low risk of contracting illness.

    WSJ was among a number of outlets recently reporting this selfishly reckless and socially endangering student behavior. Apparently readers here missed that completely …

    … the quirky wording used by Taleb coincidentally aligns with that reckless demographic’s jargon…which probably isn’t coincidence. He & his coauthor seem to be targeting that demographic: Just because you are likely safe if infected is no sane rationale to flaunt this in a way that increases the risk of me or those close to me from being infected – even crippled or killed.

    The philosophical question seems to something like: ‘At what probability does such behavior … does my reckless disregard for catching and spreading a well above average deadly, or, crippling (lung damage in survivors) virus to which I am nearly immune become socially unacceptable?’

  32. jim fedako

    Ken –

    But you could have written the same about every flu season. The CDC says that as many as 95K Americans died two years ago (that is the high estimate, with 61K their midrange).

    Were you reckless then? What about November 2019? Or even January this year when the state of NY was reporting record high flu cases?

    Why did you just become woke last week or so?

  33. Kalif

    ‘The farther the spread, the less deadly the virus. It is counterintuitive, especially if you watch science fiction movies.’
    Becky, I work in med. field, data/stats – related jobs. I’m way beyond 101 intro levels on any of these things, and no I don’t watch science fiction movies.

    It’s not ‘the farther the spread, the less deadly it is’. We measure the spread based on how many tests are available, which drives the no. of infected up and the death rate down, which in some sense is the same as what you say. However, it’s the distribution of those cases that matters, not the average of time (see sander’s comment about Tsunami above).

    I’m pretty sure that people in charge of making the hard decisions affecting the economy are familiar with cost/benefit analysis on a large scale.
    They are familiar with cranial capacity of an average citizen too:

  34. C-Marie

    So well written….article and responses!!!
    God bless, C-Marie

  35. Kalif

    Your friend’s example is tough, I know. FL and AZ are maybe just like Lombardy, age-wise. I hear about a lot worse issues from the front lines. In Italy, all medical staff showing positive for the virus is sent home, infecting others in the process and reducing available med. resources. Med staff is overworked. And yes, oncology patient that are in the last stages, but happened to pick up corona while in a hospital are counted among the dead (corona may speed it up, but is not the primary cause). How to tease apart all those variables, nobody knows, but this is not ‘business as usual’.
    Truly, the distributions are everything. Yes, it could happen in any year with any viral infection, but for some reason, it gets spread over time.

    Not all of Italy was hit the hardest, but it’s still bad to be there now:

  36. Michael Dowd

    Here is a statement that no one should seriously question:
    We must balance health risk against economic risk recognizing the economic risk must be preferenced since it will effect everyone.

  37. Becky


    I am a worse case scenerio person too. I will take the position this will be around longer than 2 weeks, 2 months, etc, so do experts that are working on a vaccine.

    1/2 my family is in medicine. They don’t seem to be able to enlighten me. It is pretty much anecdotal now. I know some doctors are losing money.

  38. Uncle Mike

    The Spring Break crowd is mainly young people who will NOT DIE even if they contract the virus. Instead they will become IMMUNE. Immunity is a good thing. They can go back to work, play, study, or whatever without danger to themselves or others.

    Those who get the crud and have a severe reaction can be CURED. Hydrochloroquine is a proven cure now in use in every hospital in the US and other countries as well. It’s not an “anecdote”, it’s an antidote.

    The panic is the panic. Taleb is in the panic business. He makes his money by spreading panic. That’s worse than Typhoid Mary. She didn’t know she was spreading a disease. Taleb does know, and he spreads panic on purpose for self-serving reasons. He’s like an STD or HIV carrier who knowingly and deliberately infects others — for profit.

    Chances are you will not die of the Commie Crud. In fact, the chance of you dying of something else is 60 times greater — and more now that a CURE has been found.

    The Political Ruling Class has gone insane with power. They are using the induced panic to institute the most economic damage, and long-term damage, that they can. That IS something to panic about, ironically. Let us pray that Trump can neuter the Swamp Creatures, and soon!

  39. Uncle Mike

    Hydroxychloroquine I meant to type. Look it up. Edumacate yourself without dependence on the Propaganda Press.

  40. Fredo

    We should do basically what China is now doing declare victory and get back
    to business as usual. Quarantining for a virus is like trying to herd cats
    it will not stop it and can only slow it down a bit. Eventually pretty much
    the same proportion of the population will be effected now or in a few months
    time. The virus will pop up here and there after the quarantine and continue
    it’s spread slowly but surely throughout the population many of which
    will then be unemployed. They will be subjected to the ravages of poverty
    and homelessness and lack the resources to attend to basic medical care.
    Mental and physical health will deteriorate crime will soar. The good news
    this thing is not that deadly despite all the sensationalism being lavished
    upon it.

  41. 360 Decrees

    Prior to the Soviets’ development of an atomic bomb, Bertrand Russell advocated for an alliance of the U.S. and western Europe to take over the whole world in order to prevent nuclear war by keeping the weapons in the hands of one ruling entity.

    And, still in the 1940s, there were others, including, if I remember correctly, retired US Navy officer and science fiction writer Robert Heinlein*, who advocated dispersion of the American population more evenly over the 48 states so that A-bombs could not knock out vital ‘centers’ of population or industry. Good thing we didn’t bother starting that. A few years later the H-bomb was invented and people just threw up their hands at civil defense measures.

    *Heinlein may have only suggested it, not advocated it.

  42. Ye Olde Statistician

    This not-a-flu-but -resembles-flu is viral, not bacterial, spread by a SARS coronavirus, similar to the 2009 pandemic. MERS was another cononavirus pandemic iirc. The question why Lombardy and not Sicily. why Qoms and not Tabriz, or [more broadly] why Italy and Iran, and not Switzerland or Iraq may be due to China’s One Belt and One Road initiative, since both Italy and Iran signed on to Chinese companies building infrastructure projects in their countries.

  43. jim fedako

    360 Degrees –

    We should still do it. After all, it may still save a life.

  44. y

    If we reduce the speed limit to 25 mph, or better yet, shelter our cars in garages, it may also still ‘save a life.’

  45. Becky

    Thank you for the link Walt.

  46. MACK

    In my experience, the precautionary principle was invented by environmental extremists when cost-benefit analyses of regulations on their pet topics showed that the costs far outweighed the benefits. This “principle” should be binned and never considered by any regulator anywhere.

  47. Charles

    @Kalif, your faith in them isn’t something I can reasonably take on faith as well, since it’s pretty clear we have a lot of stupid people making decisions.

    And even the smartest are prone to being run by their instincts when afraid.

  48. Taleb the fool

    Shutting down the economy to avoid Coronavirus destroying the economy will destroy all of the economy, therefore the costs of shutting down the economy are huge and we must panic early and avoid shutting down the economy……oh that seems not to work!

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