Seeking a sense of proportion about coronavirus deaths in America

Every evening during the Vietnam War, the nightly news anchor would announce the number of wounded and dead Americans on that day. Doing this imparted a sense of immediacy to those numbers that undoubtedly helped drive the anti-War movement.

In our coronavirus era, the media are doing the same with the numbers for those stricken or dead. For example, in the Daily Mail’s Sunday night article about the Democrats’ refusal to approve a $1.8 trillion coronavirus economic relief bill, we read this line:

The impact of coronavirus in the U.S. have [sic] skyrocketed in the last week to more than 30,200 confirmed cases and nearing 400 deaths.  

Various websites also keep a ticker tape of the “wounded” and dead. Avi Schiffmann, only 17, put together a simple, yet almost awe-inspiring, website that tracks all the coronavirus statistics from around the world. It’s so accurate that you can practically see people sicken and die in real-time.

Watching the numbers tick up is unnerving, but also misleading because it creates an artificial sense of terror. A sense of proportion helps control that terror.

As of this writing, the number of dead around the world is 14,730. Even if China, Russia, and Iran are lying about their mortality numbers, the actual number probably isn’t higher than 20,000. (And the number could be lower because Italy may have been overstating its mortality rate.)

For a global pandemic that started creeping around the world only 90 days ago, 14,730 is an inconsequential mortality number, equal to only 0.0002 percent of the world’s population. On average, this means that 164 people per day have died from coronavirus, compared to the approximately 151,600 people who die every day from all causes.

Even within the United States, the 400 coronavirus deaths, while all represent a personal tragedy, are inconsequential. During the approximately six months of the 2017-2018 flu season,

Overall hospitalization rates (all ages) during 2017-2018 were the highest ever recorded in this surveillance system, breaking the previously recorded high recorded during 2014-2015; a high severity H3N2-predominant season when CDC estimates that hospitalizations captured through FluSurv-NET translated into a total of 710,000 flu hospitalizations that seasons [sic].

Other sources estimate as many as 959,000 hospitalizations. Most sources agree that more than 61,000 people died from the flu.

Over six months that equals 338 people per day from a single cause. Can you imagine how the flu season would have played out if every newspaper and TV news show in America devoted time and space to tell us how many people had been hospitalized or died from the flu that day? People would never have left their homes.

Moreover, in the grand scheme of plagues, the numbers are insignificant. LiveScience has a list of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history, and the numbers are staggering, especially when one considers that the world had a smaller population during each of these plagues.

The Plague of Athens, which began around 430 B.C. and lasted for five years, may have killed 100,000 people.

The Antonine Plague, which ravaged the Roman empire from 164-180 A.D., and helped trigger its downfall, is estimated to have killed over 5 million people, especially in the military.

The Plague of Justinian, which lasted from 541-542 A.D., is estimated to have killed 10% of the world’s population.

And of course, the Black Death, which ran rampant from 1346-1353, killed a third to a half of Europe’s population.

In the Americas, the Europeans brought with them a host of diseases that were entirely new to the indigenous populations. This was not deliberate germ warfare, because nobody understood germs. It was merely the meeting between a society accustomed to certain diseases and one that had no immunity. Some estimates are that up to 90% of many indigenous populations in the Americas died.

We are not at those levels. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine and modern science, we will never be at those levels. Our systems will be stressed and, sadly, people who had more life ahead of them will die, but we are not as helpless as we once were.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t take coronavirus seriously. Part of why this won’t be another mass die-off is because we can take it seriously then and do something about it. This post is intended only to give a sense of proportion to the panic that’s sweeping the world. The world has a problem, the world is reacting to the problem, and the world will solve the problem, for we truly live in an age of wonders and miracles.

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