Commentary

printed 04/17/2020

Conversations comparing the novel coronavirus to the seasonal flu invariably include the fact that more people die from the flu each year than have succumbed to covid-19.

That assertion is correct, as the Centers for Disease Control estimates that not quite 31,000 people have died from covid-19 so far, as compared to the 30,000 to 60,000 lives claimed annually by the flu.

This variance suggests that the novel coronavirus has a way to go before it rivals, much less exceeds, the seasonal flu in terms of human mortality. It also appears to justify the argument that rigid state-imposed restrictions are an overreaction to a media-fueled global panic.

That would be true, except that counting the dead is only one half the equation. Currently, the CDC has recorded roughly 640,000 cases of covid-19, with a death rate of about 4 percent.

By contrast, the CDC in 2018 calculated that 35.5 million people suffered from seasonal flu, with about 34,400 of those cases proving fatal. That’s a mortality rate of one-tenth of one percent. Were the covid-19 death rate of 4 percent to apply, the flu that year would have killed almost 1.6 million people, more than cancer and heart disease combined.

Indications at this stage are that this coronavirus strain is 45 times more deadly than its flu-causing relatives, and is why severe restrictions have been ordered.

But that too is a major problem. The cold assessment of how many deaths to expect, and how many is too many, is based on early indications, rather than facts, which, unfortunately, do not exist.

Because less than 1 percent of the population has been tested for covid-19, no one knows what it’s actual mortality rate might be. Meanwhile, elected officials are expected to produce reasonable answers based on this insufficient data.

Opinions on how that’s going will vary according to individual perspectives, thus leaving us with just one indisputable fact: our current situation is not about who is right and who is wrong, but about which guess has the best chance of leading us to the least-worst outcome.

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