Globally, we’ve got about 95,000 dead from influenza so far this year, and we have 4,300 from corona. So, which should you be worried about: the common seasonal influenza or Corona?
It’s not a trick question. Right now, it looks like we are dealing with a potential pandemic combined with a global collective fear event.
I can totally understand why many people were alarmed when WHO earlier in March announced that COVID-19 had killed 3,4 percent of the people who have caught it so far - a mortality rate far higher than not only the seasonal flu, but also higher than earlier COVID-19 mortality estimates, which were around 2,0 percent. But if we look at at data from countries with robust testing systems it does support the idea that the disease’s mortality rate may be lower than 3,4 percent. Countries that have tested significant numbers of people are generally reporting lower mortality rates than those that have tested in far lower numbers and with a stronger focus on severe cases. This suggests that when testing networks are broadened to catch people with less serious illnesses, and case counts then reflect this range of severity, mortality rates go down. For instance, the mortality rate in South Korea, where more than 1,100 tests have been administered per million residents, comes out to just 0,6 percent.Even when we are taking the current estimated global mortality rate of 3,4 percent at face value, covid-19, looks like it has more in common with influenza than other once-novel coronaviruses. For instance, SARS killed about 10 percent of the people who got it, while MERS was even deadlier, killing 34 percent of patients. At least so far, COVID-19 does seem to be more lethal than the seasonal flu, but it’s closer to that end of the spectrum.
Just for comparison, since the beginning of the year, over several hundreds of thousands of people in Europe have already fallen ill with the seasonal flu and thousands have also died of it. Among them are many old, already sick and weakened people. But these numbers does not make the headlines or create panic on social media.
The health care providers in Sweden, Austria and other European countries will definitely face huge challenges the forthcoming weeks, but when I look at the facts and statistics I draw the conclusion that if you're not an 78-year-old with emphysema, the coronavirus holds about as much a threat as the common seasonal flu. Healthy youngsters and middle aged people with access to proper health care have no reason whatsoever to be more afraid of Corona/Covid-19 than the seasonal flue.
A more complete—and, hopefully, less severe—picture of Covid-19 will likely emerge as the outbreak continues, testing capacity increases and data are refined.
The last couple of weeks also highlights the importance of reliable information and proactive measures to prevent panic, especially in this digital time and age when billions of people are connected and trying to process unfiltered information regarding the spread of a (potential) pandemic. "Plagues" – or, to use a more modern term, epidemics of infectious disease – pluck at our most primal fears. Because these global epidemics are frightening, it is hardly surprising that people reach for the worst possible outcomes and historic comparisons.
Regardless of the future outcome of Covid 19 we have to realize that the panic surrounding the virus might be just as bad, or even worse. It is reasonable to assume that the fear and people's exaggerated reactions to the spread of the coronavirus could do more damage than the disease itself.
I can't help thinking of an old saying: "stop trying to calm the storm, calm yourself, and the storm will pass."