Putting COVID-19 into Perspective

By Chand Bellur

March 8, 2020 at 5:15 p.m. PDT

COVID-19 Mortality Rate Inflated

There’s a lot of discussion over the COVID-19 mortality rate. Many in the media have conflated this rate, which applies to infected individuals, with broader “per 100,000” mortality rates of influenza and other diseases. The latter rates apply to the general public — all people, infected or not. The current COVID-19 mortality rate applies only to those severely infected with the disease.

Adding to the confusion, President Trump offers his own views on the mortality rate, stating that they’re lower than the World Health Organization’s estimate. He’s not wrong on this point. Virtually every expert on infectious diseases points out that we don’t know the true mortality rate. The WHO’s 3.4% figure is the highest number. Other health experts peg the mortality rate at a much smaller 1.4%.

Most health experts find the 3.4% mortality rate inflated, due to a lack of widespread testing. Only the sickest people seek medical attention, which inflates the mortality rate.

China is extremely polluted and one-third of their population smokes tobacco heavily. This has greatly skewed the mortality rate, however, such deaths could also be considered co-morbidity from tobacco use and severe air pollution.

Fifty percent of people who contract COVID-19 will experience a forty-eight hour fever. After that, they’re asymptomatic and return to normal life. For most, it’s not even as bad as the common cold. These people generally do not seek medical attention and are not tested. Others may experience something akin to a mild cold, and can just stay home. In fact, the CDC recommends that anyone infected with the disease stay home. Only very sick people should seek medical attention. If in doubt, contact your primary care physician, as she will have better knowledge of your mortality risk.

COVID-19 Doesn’t Seem to Spread Easily

Cruise ships are modern day petri dishes. If a few people contract norovirus, the disease spreads like wildfire through the dense, captive population. With thousands of people crammed into close quarters, cruise ships are an excellent indication of how viral a disease can be.

According to Time magazine, the Diamond Princess has the highest percentage of COVID-19 infected individuals. So far, this accounts for only 6% of the ship’s passengers. Even with the most hospitable environment for pathogens, COVID-19 seems fairly difficult to contract. Given that only 5% of people wash their hands properly, simply practicing good hygiene could prevent spread of the disease.

Norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships often infect many more passengers. Just this February, a major norovirus outbreak on the Caribbean Princess infected 12% of passengers. According to the CDC, norovirus infects 21 million Americans every year, with 800 fatalities.

COVID-19 Exaggerated for Greed

It’s abundantly clear that, although COVID-19 is a serious disease that kills some, it’s comparatively harmless. It’s less deadly than that bottle of ibuprofen in your medicine cabinet. Humanity has faced far more deadly diseases such as SARS, H1N1 Swine Flu, MERS and even Ebola. The latter disease seemed to create the blueprint for how media exaggerations can be quite profitable.

When the Ebola outbreak emerged, from 2014-2016, healthcare experts rushed to West African hotspots to contain the disease. A few American healthcare workers contracted Ebola and were repatriated under tight quarantine conditions.

Media coverage captivated the world with images of healthcare workers in protective gear transporting Ebola-infected patients as though they were unexploded munitions. The networks learned a valuable lesson. Fear of disease, deadly or not, generates profits for corporate media. As long as they don’t step on any advertisers’ toes, such as cruise ship operators and big pharma, hyping new diseases is a goldmine for the corporate news media.

The differences between FOX, CNN, MSNBC and the PBS NewsHour are staggering. The former three networks dedicate 95% of their media coverage to COVID-19. Even with a looming presidential election, they’re well aware that Americans can’t get enough COVID-19 coverage. The PBS NewsHour is covering the disease, but it accounts for about 10-40% of news coverage. The program still covers the 2020 presidential campaigns, world events and even cultural affairs.

Beyond the media, public health agencies also have good reason to exaggerate COVID-19 fears. President Trump sought to cut the CDC’s budget, however, this has yet to occur. Nonetheless, CDC leaders are more likely to exaggerate COVID-19 in order to grow their budget. This concept, known as bureaucratic inertia, is well-known by political scientists.

The World Health Organization is also bound by budgets. Like any publicly-funded organization, they too are subject to the laws of bureaucratic inertia. The 3.4% mortality rate is likely erring on the side of caution, but it also justifies increased budgets for the organization.

The Sky is not Falling, Chicken Little

Everywhere you turn, people are freaking out about COVID-19. Let’s put this in perspective. 80,000 Americans died from influenza in 2018. The flu is boring, so it didn’t receive the media attention it deserved. 16,500 people die from NSAID related complications. Drugs such as ibuprofen destroy patients’ stomach linings, leading to severe internal bleeding and death. A five year old child can buy ibuprofen at a supermarket. It’s highly unlikely that the corporate media would trash NSAIDs as they’re advertised on practically every commercial break, along with a slew of deadly prescription drugs.

The effort to contain COVID-19 should not be conflated with the notion that it’s particularly deadly. Many health experts have stated that they want to contain the disease because, in conjunction with the flu, both diseases circulating around the globe will kill twice as many people.

The fact is, we can contain COVID-19 by aggressive monitoring and quarantines. This will buy time until a vaccine and treatments are developed. It’s important to realize, this is effective public health policy. If COVID-19 ends up killing less than 1% of the infected, it’s still a good idea to contain it.

The public’s obsession with COVID-19 isn’t based in reality. It comes from twenty-four hour news networks, which compete with online sources. More people are getting their news from social media and news apps. Twenty-four hour news networks exploit fear to turn a profit. This is why a somewhat harmful disease has turned into the next apocalypse.

COVID-19 is not going to result in an apocalypse. Sorry, you won’t get to live like Rick Grimes in a post-apocalyptic world. When the dust settles, you’ll see the same fear mongering media pointing fingers at each other, claiming that it was an overreaction. A few months later, they’ll find a new disease to hype, until the public realizes they’re just crying wolf. Perhaps people should simply wash their hands properly instead of contemplating the end of the world.

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