If COVID-19 were 10 times as deadly, we would have eliminated it by now. It would have been so clearly dangerous, that we would be unwilling to accept its continued spread, and we would work harder to eliminate it. In fact, I bet that fewer people would die from such a disease.*
From an evolutionary perspective, such a virus would be less fit, as it would provoke such a strong social response that it gets itself banished. COVID-19, however, has found a more sly strategy: be harmful enough to have a real effect on humans, but not so harmful that humans care enough to respond. Exploit the fact that humans are a divided bunch, who won’t easily work together unless they’re really forced to.
In this case, there is a definite loss to society from letting COVID hang around. But the way that loss gets distributed amongst various parties, is such that much of the western world (the Americas and Europe) seem to not mind having it stay around. The way power is distributed in our system (politicians, Big Pharma, Wall Street, the Tech Industry; plus the collective behavior of individuals), is such that the parties named above are not incentivized to get rid of it, despite there being a net negative to the entire society. It feels very much like what the economists call a social dilemma, also known as a collective action problem:
a situation in which all individuals would be better off cooperating but fail to do so because of conflicting interests between individuals that discourage joint action.
COVID-19 has managed to find a nice niche for itself. It gets to spread, but it’s careful to cause just little enough harm that humans fall into a social dilemma. It’s a narrow niche to occupy, but COVID-19 has unfortunately found it.
The fact that this niche exists demonstrates a dangerous gap in human society. Our inability to respond to collective action problems makes us vulnerable, not only to future pandemics, but to longer time-scale issues like climate change. Will we act in our own self-interest?
* Thanks to Alex Siegenfeld for posing this conjecture, which I agree with.