The Best Medicine to Fight the Corona Virus
The US needs to take a moment and breathe.
And perhaps wash its hands more often.
For the last several weeks, there has been sensationalized coverage of the COVID-19 virus that, by itself, caused a greater panic than any other outbreak in modern medical history. With every new day, reports are released of a new outbreak or a new death in a metropolitan area which, while tragic over the loss of life, only serve to inspire chaotic disruptions across every arena of modern civic life.
With schools closing or going virtual, the stock market plunging, and supermarkets turning into panicked arenas more appropriate in a Mad Max Thunderdome, now more than ever we need to face the fact that we are creating a medical mountain out of a molehill.
Make no mistake. I am as infected by fear as any, but the thought has occurred to me after looking at some numbers that we as a people need to remember to keep things in context.
The Inherent Lie in Statistical Graphing
Pictures are certainly worth a thousand words, and the news-media worldwide has been showing us plenty of them in the last weeks that tell a tale of a rising tide of woe. But while there is obscured truth in what we see, we are being stoked into a furor needlessly.
Case in point, there was a map that was circulated late last month detailing the spread of COVID-19 at ground zero in China. I have included a copy of it below.
Looks pretty serious, doesn’t it? Five provinces colored the most dire shade of red, so it must be a terrible virus beyond anything we have conceivably faced before, right?
Look at a different visualization of case numbers as a bar graph.
Now I admit that I have worn glasses my entire life, so perhaps my vision isn’t the best, but the second graph paints the virus in a very different light, doesn’t it?
Not Exactly the Fourth Horseman
I can hear the shouts now that I am minimizing the deaths of those nearly five thousand who have, unfortunately, succumbed to the effects of COVID-19. Italy alone is responsible for almost a thousand of these deaths, with a mortality rate of about 6.2%.
(At the time of this piece’s writing, such numbers represent a statistical outlier, with most other reported mortality rates at half or lower.)
Okay, I’m willing to concede that if I look at a single country like Italy, it looks terrible. And I am not so cold-hearted that I cannot acknowledge the tragedy of each lost life.
But if we look beyond outliers, the truth of the virus worldwide is more nuanced than what Italy’s pain would otherwise suggest.
At the time of this piece, there have been a total of 73,431 closed cases of COVID-19, with a recovery rate of approximately 95%. If we look more closely at the data, a disproportionate number of those who have died are above 65, with a mortality rate of about 2% for those less than 60 years old.
Compare this to other modern named pandemics. If we speak purely versus similar diseases with a relatively equal infection profile (that is, the average number of people each infected individual infects), SARS, Spanish flu, and tuberculosis are between three and five times more deadly.
If we speak purely about mortality of patients, it’s even more transparent — bird flu was twenty times more deadly, Ebola fifteen, MERS twelve. Even largely eradicated smallpox is ten times more deadly, and that’s if we assume the highest mortality in relation to COVID-19.
We may not currently have the perfect cure for COVID-19 (or, indeed, any cure), but to conflate this contagion as some mythical end of days diminishes what we have done together as a society throughout our history. Take note of the other names haunting that graph. So many of them barely exist now because of the tribulations suffered by previous generations, moving from pandemic to passe after we as a society took a moment to realize that each sickness is beatable so long as we keep our situation in perspective.
Consider how we have been told about each new regrettable death in excruciating detail, with the news media holding each casualty up as a symbol of the virulence of the disease. But these tragedies belie a contextual truth.
In the year 2020, rabies kills more than 2.5 times per day than COVID-19. The seasonal flu kills more than 16 times the number in the same time. Tuberculosis, a disease that afflicts an estimated 5,700 Americans per year, is far more deadly than these.
On Mountains and Molehills
There is an unfortunate predilection to equate a new challenge as the greatest we have ever faced as a society.
There is no denying that each fallen individual lost to COVID-19, at home or abroad, is a needless loss, a candle snuffed out by random chance. But let’s remember that this new challenge is not greater than the ones we have faced before as a country and, for all too many contagions, still face.
For decades, the US has struggled against viruses and diseases that have tried and pushed us to our collective limit. Even in my own lifetime, I have seen us tested by SARS, MERS, Ebola outbreaks, avian flu, swine flu… I recall the H1N1 scares of 2009 and the tragedies that we suffered together.
But, for all that fear, we have always found a way to rise above and persist beyond the tribulation of the moment. We have banded together to see the greater perspective. Whether that is in realizing our shared hope for a quick cure or projecting outwardly a sense of calm that we might not feel on the inside, we must remember that we have been here before.
Yes, the struggle is real as we race to understand the nature of COVID-19. Yes, there will be discomfort along that path. Yes, our lives will be disrupted by this newest challenge.
But we’ve been here before.
And we’ve beaten it before.
As we go about our lives these next weeks (and maybe even months), remember that the challenges of COVID-19, too, shall pass.
And remember to use soap when you wash your hands.