Coronavirus

No, Author Sylvia Browne Didn't Predict the Coronavirus Outbreak

Sorry Kim.
March 17, 2020, 5:17am
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Image: Twitter

In recent weeks there have been plenty of rumours, myths and misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, Covid-19. One of the most curious pieces is the recent resurrection of a prediction by late author and self-described psychic Sylvia Browne, who in her 2008 book End of Days predicted that: In around [sic] 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely. This led to many declaring on social media that Browne, who died in 2013, had accurately predicted the Covid-19 outbreak—including no less a respected authority than Kim Kardashian West. One news writer asked, “Doesn’t it sound very similar to this novel coronavirus and the disease, Covid-19? Be it the nature of the illness, the year mentioned or the part about the resistance to treatments—the similarity with coronavirus is uncanny."

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Image: Twitter

Let’s revisit the passage in question: “In around 2020 [sic] a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

So there’s a lot packed into these two sentences. First, we have an indefinite date range (“in around 2020”), which depends on how loosely you interpret the word “around”: Browne doesn’t write “In 2020,” which would narrow it down to one calendar year; she writes “in around”, whose grammatically awkward construction suggests to the editor in me that she (or her editor) added the words in a late draft to make it more general—a typical psychic technique. What “around 2020” means varies by subjective criterion, and could plausibly include a range of plus or minus three or more years: Most people would probably agree that 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022, and 2023 are “around” 2020. That spread is well over half a decade.

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So what did Browne predict would happen sometime during those years? “A severe pneumonia-like illness.” Covid-19 is not “a severe pneumonia-like illness,” though it can in some cases lead to pneumonia. Most of those infected (about 80 percent) have mild symptoms and recover just fine, and the disease has a mortality rate of between 2-4 percent. There are two types of coronaviruses—Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome—that “can cause severe respiratory infections,” but Covid-19 is not among them; both SARS and MERS are far more deadly.

Where will it go, according to Browne? It “will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes.” Covid-19 has now indeed spread throughout the globe, though the phrase “attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes” isn’t a prediction but merely restates any “pneumonia-like illness.”

But Browne also offers another specific characteristic of this disease, that of “resisting all known treatments.” This also does not describe Covid-19, which doesn’t “resist all known treatments”; in fact doctors know exactly how to treat (though not effectively vaccinate or quarantine, which are very different measures) the disease, and it’s essentially the same for influenza or other similar respiratory infections. There’s nothing unique about Covid-19’s resistance to treatment.

In the second sentence she further describes the illness: “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.” This is false, at least as of now. Covid-19 has not “suddenly vanished as quickly as it arrived,” and even if it eventually does, its emergence pattern would have to be compared with other typical epidemiology data to know whether it’s “baffling.”

Infectious diseases (especially ones such as respiratory illnesses) have predictable patterns, and modelling outbreaks is a whole branch of public health. Given a normal distribution (bell curve) of cases, it would not necessarily be “baffling” if the disease subsided as quickly as it arose. In fact what would be astonishing is if it did not; in other words, if over the course of a week or two the infection rates plummeted inexplicably as no new infections were reported at all. That would be an amazing psychic prediction.

Note also that the "prediction" couldn’t even be mostly validated until 2030, since it references a recurrence of the disease ten years later—a neat trick for a prediction made (or at least made public) nearly a quarter-century earlier. And as to whether it would “then disappear completely,” I suppose that could be determined true or false at some point around the end of time, so expect a follow-up piece from me then.

So we have a two-sentence prediction written in 2008 by a convicted felon with a long track record of failures. At best, maybe one-sixth of what she said is accurate, depending again on how much latitude you’re willing to give her in terms of dates and vague descriptions.

In her books, television appearances, interviews and elsewhere over the course of her career, Browne made thousands of predictions; the fact that this one happened to be possibly, maybe, partly right is meaningless. People love a mystery, and retrofitting vague predictions—whether from Browne, Nostradamus, or anyone else—to fit current or recent events is a timeless parlour game that has more to do with lack of critical thinking than any psychic powers. This story was originally published by the Center for Enquiry