How to Convince the Recalcitrant That This Time Really is Different

Photograph Source: Steven Pisano – CC BY 2.0

Although I personally agree with the “shelter in place” policy currently in effect in North Carolina and other states, and am more or less reconciled to “the way we live now”—to borrow from Trollope—a bit more context on the crisis provoked by the novel corona virus COVID-19 might at once provide some useful information to the public and allow the recalcitrant better to understand what all the fuss is about.

Such context, alas, is necessary even today. Why? In part because, in their fevered efforts to get the new virus under control, “experts”—including both government officials and medical professionals– have sometimes skipped over helpful “framing” facts. More to the point, just as law enforcement and traffic-safety experts often find it useful to scare people into driving more safely over long holiday weekends by telling us how many people die in vehicle accidents during such weekends without telling how many die on typical three-day weekends, some of the reports on infections and deaths associated with COVID-19 fail to compare such figures in meaningful ways to infections and fatalities occurring annually in the U.S. due to “normal” influenza. Such information, I believe, would prove helpful to individuals—especially individuals suspicious of expertise, government, etc.– in assessing personal risk in these troubled times.

According to the invaluable database assembled and maintained by the Coronavirus Resource Center at the Johns Hopkins University, as of 8:46 pm EDT on Thursday April 9 the total number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. since the pandemic reached our country earlier this year numbered 461,437. Of this figure, 16,478 or 3.6 percent of those infected have died. By way of contrast, the CDC’s official report for the 2018-2019 influenza season in the U.S. estimates that 35.5 million people in the U.S. got sick with influenza, with 16.5 million of them going to see a health provider because of their illness. Just under 500,000 people in the U.S. (490,600) were hospitalized because of influenza, and 34,200 people died from “influenza-influenced illnesses.” That’s a lot of deaths—and the 2018-2019 flu season was much less severe than 2017-2018, when about 61,000 are estimated to have died—but a little simple division reveals that the percentage of those dying from “normal” seasonal influenza in 2018-2019 was less than 0.001. That is to say, the fatality levels for COVID-19 are several levels of magnitude greater than for seasonal flu: currently 3.6 percent versus 0.001 percent. Put another way, in the U.S. 36 of every 1000 people infected with COVID-19 are dying, while fewer than one in a thousand of the people infected with seasonal influenza in 2018-2019 died. To be sure, it is likely that many more people have been infected by COVID-19 than current estimates suggest, but under any plausible scenario the fatality rate for COVID-19 is much, much higher than for seasonal influenza. All the more reason to keep the infection from spreading even more widely, don’t you think?

To square the circle, a few words are in order regarding traffic fatalities over holiday weekends versus non-holiday weekends. A recent study conducted by the National Safety Council examined traffic fatalities in the U.S. over three-day Memorial Day weekends versus equivalent three-day periods in in the month of May over the period between 1995 and 2017. The researchers looked particularly closely at the average number of traffic fatalities during the last six years of the longer period and found that during that sub-period traffic deaths over three-day Memorial Day weekends averaged 358 deaths as opposed to 336 during equivalent three-day periods earlier in May. The average for Memorial Day weekends is, thus, a bit higher—about 6.3 percent higher—than the average for “normal” weekends. The researchers point out, however, that the difference between the two averages is not “statistically significant” (to use stats lingo, at the .05 level). Complicating things further, there is some evidence, but not systematic evidence, that people may drive more on holiday weekends than they do on “normal weekends. If they drive more than 6.3 percent more than usual, the roads might actually be safer in a relative sense on holiday weekends (at least Memorial Day weekends) than on normal weekends!

As the above data suggest, then, numbers don’t always speak for themselves, much less clarify things completely. But sometimes they seem to—as in the case with the novel corona virus COVID-19. Take heed.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and the Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.