As the coronavirus pandemic explodes across the world, shutting down entire cities and wrecking global businesses, some people continue to believe the extreme measures taken by governments are excessive and unwarranted.
One of the arguments put forward by this group of sceptics has been that the mortality rate of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, is far lower than that of many other diseases, and hence the concerns over it are misplaced or exaggerated.
Social media, the favourite refuge of the outliers, has seen several posts comparing the daily death toll from COVID-19 — a little over 10,000, and nearing 2.45 lakh infections globally on Friday since the outbreak began in Wuhan, China at the end of December — with diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis B, cancer, HIV-AIDS, and influenza to make the point that the coronavirus disease is far less lethal.
While panic over the outbreak must always be avoided, downplaying concerns over a disease that is spreading fast, and in unpredictable ways, can have serious consequences.
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There are three reasons why such claims are misguided and misleading.
One, death toll is not the only reason we need to be on guard against the coronavirus; two, it is wrong to compare an active infection with diseases with a stable prevalence; and three, we simply do not know COVID-19’s mortality rate yet.
COVID-19 mortality rate
In the first week of March, the World Health Organisation’s Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said it could be 3.4 per cent.
The WHO arrived at this figure by dividing the number of deaths by the number of confirmed cases. However, it has been acknowledged — by WHO, too — that it is very difficult to get an exact number of confirmed cases for COVID-19.
It all depends very much on how much a particular country is testing, how many people dismiss their symptoms as common cold, and how many show symptoms that are just too mild to be detected.
What this means is, if the number of cases is actually higher than those officially confirmed, the mortality rate would actually be lower than the WHO’s initial estimate.
If this sounds like good news, it is important to bear in mind also that how lethal a disease is depends not just on how many people it kills, but also how fast the number of deaths rises.
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Our World In Data, a non-profit research portal based at the University of Oxford, has used WHO numbers to calculate how fast the number of deaths due to coronavirus doubled, and the data is sobering: In China, the number of deaths doubled in 31 days, while in Italy, it took just 4 days. And in Iran, the fatalities doubled in 5 days.
In the United States, the number of daily new confirmed deaths from March 14 to March 19 were 7, 10, 12, 16, 23, and 42. The total number of confirmed deaths during this period shot up from 47 on March 14 to 150 on March 19, and by noon India time on March 20 (Friday), the number of US deaths recorded by the Johns Hopkins University real-time coronavirus dashboard stood at 205.
Comparing COVID-19 with other diseases
That’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. Diseases like TB, influenza and hepatitis B have already reached a stable prevalence, and we largely know how many people, in what age groups, are affected by it.
About COVID-19, a lot is uncertain. We know the infection is spreading, but we are not sure at what rate. Also, the patterns are different in different countries.
Comparing the death toll of COVID-19 with other diseases is misleading because the other diseases have been around for years, some times centuries, at a time when medical care was not very advanced.
COVID-19 has been around for only a few months, and has killed thousands of people in developed countries with sophisticated healthcare facilities.
The contagion is a reason to worry
COVID-19 is extremely contagious, and the person carrying coronavirus is a risk not only to themselves but also to others. As Italy has shown, once the cases go beyond a point, the pressure on the healthcare system can be debilitating.
With no available cure, adhering to precautions is the best defence against COVID-19.
It is best, therefore, to listen to government and private experts who know better — practise social distancing, work from home to the extent possible, avoid crowded places and large gatherings, postpone the plans for eating or drinking out for better times, and make washing hands a lifelong habit.
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