It has been said, over and over and over (ad nauseam) that novel coronavirus is no worse than the flu. Actually, a good many people have made the argument that coronavirus isn’t nearly as dangerous as the flu by pointing out how many people seasonal flu has killed in the United States the year alone (18,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s latest estimate).
But coronavirus is more deadly than seasonal flu, and we don’t do ourselves any favors by glossing over that fact. That isn’t to say that Covid-19 poses a greater risk to any one of us than the flu does, or that we should panic and start hoarding hand sanitizer, surgical masks and toilet paper.
I’ll admit that I have poked fun at those who are panicking over coronavirus by using the flu analogies myself. The irony is too delicious to pass up. We’re screeching at everybody to wash their hands because coronavirus has killed around two dozen people in the U.S. but 97% of us don’t wash our hands (at least not properly, according. to U.S. Department of Agriculture studies) in the face of seasonal flu killing tens of thousands of us every year.
But don’t mistake my nod to the obvious irony as an attempt to ignore the threats posed by Covid-19. It behooves us to keep the flu’s seriousness in mind for perspective. But perspective works both ways, and we also shouldn’t ignore the fact that coronavirus and influenza are two very different beasts. America seems to have broken into two camps on the coronavirus threat — those who are sticking their heads in the sand like ostriches, and those who are excavating mountains from molehills. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the breakdown seems to occur along political ideological lines, with conservatives choosing to downplay the threat and progressives opting to sound very loud alarms. If the requirements are that you don’t see coronavirus as a threat if you voted for President Trump, and that you see it as a doomsday scenario if you plan to vote for Bernie or Biden, I’m not sure where someone like me — a slightly right-of-center independent — is supposed to stand.
So I’m going to focus on the oft-repeated claim that coronavirus is no more deadly than the flu (or, as I’m increasingly being told this week, no more dangerous than the common cold).
According to the CDC, the fatality rate of seasonal flu is 0.1%. And, according to the World Health Organization, the fatality rate of Covid-19 is 3.4%. It’s fair to question the WHO’s number, because many health professionals are doing just that. There are a lot of unknowns about coronavirus. It’s still way too early in the game for anyone to know for sure exactly how deadly it will be in the U.S. But it’s safe to say that it will be more deadly — perhaps several times moreso — than the flu.
As any scientist will tell you, a fatality rate cannot be gleaned by dividing the fatalities against the known cases at this early juncture. There have been 30 fatalities in the U.S. thus far, and about 750 confirmed cases. If you did the math with those numbers, 4% of known cases of coronavirus have resulted in death so far — not counting the ones who are still in critical condition. However, we know that there are more than 750 cases of coronavirus in the U.S. Only a few thousand Americans have been tested thus far, and as more tests are conducted in places like New Rochelle, N.Y., the number of infected victims climb quickly.
Still, we know enough to safely assume that the fatality rate for Covid-19 is well above the seasonal flu’s fatality rate of 0.1%. So, for now, let’s use the WHO’s documented fatality rate of 3.4% for perspective.
Even using the WHO’s numbers, more than 80% of those afflicted by coronavirus will experience only mild symptoms — yes, perhaps no more serious than the flu or even the common cold. If we were talking cancer statistics, that would be pretty good. But you don’t get cancer because someone sneezed on you. And, as pandemics go, a 3.4% fatality rate is actually quite substantial. (For perspective, the fatality rate during the 1918-1919 Spanish flu outbreak was only 2%. For further perspective, the fatality rate during the 2008 H1N1 flu scare was well under 0.1%.)
Let’s consider the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium. It holds just over 100,000 people. And 100,000 is a nice, round number. It’s easy to visualize. Let’s say you rounded up every enough people to fill Neyland Stadium to capacity on a football Saturday, and you weren’t selective; you simply chose people at random. Then let’s say that, during that game, every single person inside Neyland Stadium was infected with the flu. All averages being true, we could expect that 100 people inside Neyland Stadium would die.
Now let’s say that everyone inside of Neyland Stadium was infected with Covid-19 during that game. Again, all average being true, we could expect 3,400 people inside the stadium to die.
It’s a substantial difference.
Let’s put it another way. Let’s say that you’re inside Neyland Stadium, and and the P.A. announcer comes on to say that title sponsor First Tennessee Bank is going to randomly award a $500 savings account to 100 people inside the stadium.
You wouldn’t think your chances of winning were very great, would you? You’re one of 100,000, and there are only 100 prizes to be given.
Now suppose the PA announcer said there were going to be 3,400 savings accounts randomly awarded.
Aha. You’re still one of 100,000, but now there are 3,400 prizes to go around. Suddenly, your chances of winning start to look pretty good, right?
But, you argue, it’s not a valid illustration because severe cases of Covid-19 don’t just occur randomly. And you would be mostly correct. There are exceptions; there are always exceptions with illness, which is why young people sometimes wind up with cancer. But where Covid-19 differs from some other pandemics (such as that 2018-2019 Spanish flu outbreak, in which 98% of the victims in America were under the age of 60), it doesn’t seem to have a terrible impact on otherwise healthy individuals. Those who are most at risk are those who are elderly and who have underlying health conditions (though persons of any age with underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems would be considered at greater risk).
So let’s say that the PA announcer decided that none of those 3,400 prizes would be awarded to the football and who were wearing visors, golf shorts, polos, or boat shoes (sockless), since they don’t really look like they need an extra $500. Therefore, you’re only going to be chosen if you’re wearing a t-shirt and baseball cap. So if you’re wearing dressed to the nines, you are probably going to shrug and ignore what comes next, knowing your name won’t likely be called. But if you’re wearing the bUTch t-shirt from 2015 because you haven’t bothered to throw down $79.95 on a new Nike polo, aren’t you suddenly thinking that you need to sit up and pay a little extra attention as the winning seat numbers are called?
In this completely hypothetical situation, most people are going to walk out of Neyland Stadium empty-handed, even those who are wearing the free Dish Network Vols t-shirts and the sweat-stained Power T ball caps. But can we stop with the narrative that coronavirus is no more deadly than the flu?
Again, that isn’t to say that coronavirus is a bigger risk to us than the flu. The flu is still a far greater threat, at least for now, based on sheer numbers. But in communities where outbreaks of Covid-19 are occurring, the coronavirus suddenly leaps past the flu in terms of the dangers presented.
In the meantime, it’s easy for those of us who are healthy to wave off the threat of the coronavirus, saying that it only impacts those who are weaker or older. But in a nation of well over 300 million people, each of us is a potential carrier. Each of us is a host in which the virus could potentially mutate and become more dangerous. We have to think about our own elderly parents, grandparents, fellow church patrons, neighbors, etc. But we also have to think about humanity as a whole. At this point, it would seem that containment of coronavirus is a pipe dream. But let’s think about it this way: there’s no way to contain the flu, either, yet how many of us have said, “If your kids are sick, keep them home!” Right? We don’t want other people’s sick kids at school, even if they’re only suffering from mild symptoms and don’t feel bad enough to stay home. Why? Because we don’t want them spreading their germs and, thus, spreading the illness.
The same thing applies to coronavirus. Except that there’s one significant difference between the flu and coronavirus: there are no antiviral medications to lesson coronavirus’s symptoms, and there is no vaccine available to help protect those most vulnerable.
So while it may be true that coronavirus is a minuscule threat to you and I, it’s actually way more complicated than just us. And these are things that decision-makers and policy-molders are going to have to consider in the days ahead. All of us may have to endure some minor inconveniences, especially if or when coronavirus breaks out in our community. I’m not saying drastic measures are justified — like today’s decision by Berea College in eastern Kentucky to cancel the entirety of the spring semester and upend the lives of its students even though coronavirus hasn’t been detected anywhere near there. At this point, we’re seriously flirting with the prospect of completely undermining our economy, and the consequences of that could be much more drastic and long-lasting than the virus itself. But this is a complicated and rapidly evolving global issue — one that requires complicated solutions — and it can’t be whimsically dismissed as being no more dangerous than seasonal flu. It’s not that simple.