UPDATE, March 12, 2020: This article contains information that is outdated or no longer accurate according to the latest data from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and federal authorities. This article appears as it did when originally published.
The city-state of Singapore, population 5.6 million, has a face-mask problem. Namely, there aren’t enough of them to go around.
Thanks to the COVID-19 virus — better known as coronavirus — the tiny island right off the southern coast of the Malay Peninsula has had an issue keeping the masks in stock, along with hand sanitizer and other assorted items.
The government ended up subsidizing masks so that every family could have them after people decided to hoard them like they were bottled water in a storm. Pharmacies reported massive shortages of both the masks and sanitizer.
Never mind that these masks don’t particularly work that well.
Singapore had, as of Feb. 25, 89 confirmed coronavirus cases. That means 0.002 percent of the population was infected. Keep in mind, too, that Singapore’s government is much more open about its COVID-19 numbers than China is being.
In other words, Spanish Influenza this isn’t.
At least Singapore is in Asia, the part of the world the vast majority of coronavirus cases are.
The United States, meanwhile, is a huge country with 300-odd million people. We had 53 confirmed cases as of Feb. 25. And we’re all frightened out of our minds.
NBC News: 14 Americans test positive for coronavirus after evacuation from quarantined cruise ship.https://t.co/viKY8mjyBX
— lacey secutores (@lacey9020) February 17, 2020
With the world on the brink of crisis, it would be nice to have a president who knows what he’s doing … instead we have Donald Trump https://t.co/AV6xQ4zXrR
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) February 25, 2020
Donald Trump has told advisers that he does not want the administration to do or say anything regarding the Coronavirus outbreak that would further spook the markets
Trump doesn’t want to do anything about a global pandemic because he’s concerned it will hurt his re-election bid
— Edward Hardy (@EdwardTHardy) February 25, 2020
— WSJ Editorial Page (@WSJopinion) February 24, 2020
This sort of thing sells newspapers and engenders clicks. But it doesn’t make us any safer and it doesn’t actually convey the scope of the disease in the United States. It also doesn’t note that COVID-19 is far less deadly than the flu in the United States.
First, something from The Washington Post which, in a saner world, would quell some of the hysteria.
The report, published Feb. 12. noted that “the virus’s destructive potential has overshadowed one encouraging aspect of this outbreak: So far, about 82 percent of the cases — including all 14 in the United States — have been mild, with symptoms that require little or no medical intervention. And that proportion may be an undercount.
“Health authorities managing the outbreak are trying to understand what that critical fact portends. Are the 60,000 sick people tallied so far just a portion of a vast reservoir of uncounted victims, some of whom may be spreading the disease? And do the mild illnesses reveal characteristics of the virus itself — something that could be useful in crafting a more effective response?”
But this is not a saner world, and if you’re hopeful for a pandemic, then you don’t really care about the facts.
18 new cases of coronavirus in the U.S., bringing the total to 53 (expect that number to grow). Dow Jones down over 1,000 points Monday. https://t.co/GKqw5H2iC0
— David Knowles (@writerknowles) February 24, 2020
I’m going to start compiling data from stories involving flu-related deaths in the U.S. this year, from the start of the coronavirus outbreak to today.
What I’m trying to find out is if any reported “flu deaths” in the U.S. may have actually been undetected #COVID19 cases.
— K.L. 何凯丽 (@k_wuttt) February 18, 2020
And that’s the thing — the statistics show the flu is much more deadly than coronavirus.
The coronavirus has thus far claimed zero lives in the United States. That’s a zero percent fatality rate.
Compare that to the fatality rate for influenza, which is affecting far more people in the U.S. right now, with the Centers for Disease Control stating that 14,657 cases were identified during the week ending Feb. 15.
Between Oct. 1 and Feb. 15, the CDC estimates there have been between 29 and 41 million cases of the flu in the U.S., causing between 16,000 and 41,000 deaths.
Remember that the fatality rate in the U.S. from coronavirus is currently zero percent. Which one is more deadly?
Let’s trot that thinking-person emoji out.
But in China, you say, the numbers are pretty dramatic — right? Well, not as much as you might think.
“Constant on-the-nose reporting, however much it seems to serve transparency, has limitations, too,” Temple University math professor John Allen Paulos wrote in The New York Times on Feb. 18.
“It’s a short-term, and shortsighted, approach that’s difficult to resist, especially when people are afraid and the authorities are taking draconian actions. It’s only natural to compare and contrast whatever hard facts are available. And yet it’s especially dangerous to do that precisely because people are so anxious, and fear can trick the mind.”
As he pointed out, the death rate is determined by dividing the number of dead by the number of infected. However, that could be problematic.
“The number of deaths (D) seems like it should be easy enough to determine: After all, dead is dead. And yet ascribing a cause of death can be tricky,” Paulos wrote.
“The coronavirus might be blamed for the deaths of vulnerable people, especially seniors, already suffering from other illnesses, such as diabetes and other chronic conditions. On the other hand, some deaths will be attributed to other illnesses that might more accurately be ascribed to COVID-19.
“Even more problematic is figuring out the total number of infected people (I) — call that the mystery of the denominator. Patients who have tested positive and are hospitalized are included in that tally, of course. But what about those who are being treated without formally having been tested? Or those who might be infected and yet display no symptoms?”
And that latter part is much more tricky. After all, what we hear about are people in the death throes of the disease.
That’s not quite how COVID-19 — much like most infections diseases like this — works. Consider that most of the cases have been mild — and the attendant problems of numerical reporting within China.
But of course, without panic, how else can governments, particularly China’s authoritarian communist government, keep accelerating their hold on power in this case?
What will it accomplish?
Nothing — except maybe accelerating the sale of those ridiculous surgical masks.
It won’t help stop the spread of coronavirus.
However, fear helps make government more powerful — and it keeps them looking like our savior. That’s something it helps to remember in situations like this.
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