Consider travel. The average American takes three flights a year; the average Chinese person less than half a flight. And the epidemiological disaster of the Diamond Princess has persuaded many people to hold off on cruises. That cruise ship stigma alone potentially affects about 3.5 percent of the United States, which has about 11.5 million passengers each year, compared with only 0.17 percent of China, which has about 2.3 million passengers.
People may stop attending American sporting events. There have even been calls for the N.C.A.A. to play its March Madness college basketball tournament without an audience. But sports is a huge business in the United States. People spend upward of 10 times as much on sporting events as they do in China.
And if 60 million Americans stop spending $19 billion a year on gyms, that would be a much a bigger deal than if the 6.6 million gym members in China stopped spending the $6 billion they devote to gyms now.
That’s just a start. Who wants to go to the dentist or the hospital during an outbreak if a visit isn’t necessary? Yet health spending is 17 percent of the U.S. economy — more than triple the proportion spent in China.
Of course, not every service sector is so much larger than in China. Retail and restaurants, for example, have comparable shares of gross domestic product in both countries.
But over all, the United States is substantially more reliant on services than China is. And, on the flip side, agriculture, a sector not noted for day-to-day social interaction and so potentially less harmed by social withdrawal, is a 10 times larger share of China’s economy than it is in the United States.
So for all the talk about the global “supply shock” set off by the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on supply chains, we may have more to fear from an old-fashioned “demand shock” that emerges when everyone simply stays home. A major coronavirus epidemic in the United States might be like a big snowstorm that shuts down most economic activity and social interaction only until the snow is cleared away. But the coronavirus could be a “Snowmaggedon-style storm” that hits the whole country and lasts for months.
So go wash your hands for the full 20 seconds. And show some more sympathy for the folks quarantined in China and elsewhere. Because if it spreads rapidly in the United States, it could be a heck of a lot worse.
Austan Goolsbee, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, was an adviser to President Barack Obama. Follow him on Twitter: @austan_goolsbee