“New Corona Cases”:  A Phrase That’s Tells us Very Little, if Anything,  About the Actual Levels of Danger We  Face

At the outset of the corona crisis I wrote an article, about the essential uselessness of the term  “corona  cases“ in our public discourse at that moment. Leaning  on the ideas of the Swiss linguist Saussure, who argued that  all semantic meaning  is relational, I described the term as a classic “empty” or “floating” signifier.


Because we clearly lacked the contextual armature needed  to make any sense of its  utility as an indicator of serious health consequences from the virus.  In other words, it was being used to indicate a deeply threatening reality  per se  when, in fact, we did not have the relational  information needed  to arrive at this conclusion

Almost three  months  have passed since then, and we now have a much clearer idea of what “corona cases” means from a serious illness and mortality  point of view for the overwhelming majority of people. The answer: near complete deliverance from concern.

If you don’t believe me, listen to  Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, Chief Medical Adviser to the UK Government, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Health and Social Care (UK)  and Head of the National Institute for Health Research (UK) who, on May 11th,  said of  the virus:

The great majority of the people will not die from it….. Most people, uh well, a significant proportion of people, will not get this virus at all at any point in the epidemic which is going to go on for a long period of time. Of those that do, some of them will get the virus without even knowing it, they will have a virus with no symptoms at all, asymptomatic carriage. Of those that get symptoms, the great majority, probably 80 per cent, will have a mild or moderate disease. It might be bad enough for them to go to bed for a few days, not bad enough for them to go to the doctor. An unfortunate minority will have to go as far as hospital. The majority of them will just need oxygen and then leave hospital. And then a minority of those will have to go to severe and critical care. And some of those, sadly, will die. But that’s a minority, one percent, or possibly even less than one percent overall. And even in the highest risk group, this is significantly less than 20 percent, i.e. the great majority of the people, even the very highest groups, if they catch this virus will not die. And I really wanted to make that point really clearly.

Indeed, if you go to Worldometers  corona page  today it says quite clearly that says that 99% of all known cases now are “mild”. And as Dr. Whitty clearly said, even among even among the 1%  of cases that aren’t mild, the chances of mortality are rather low.

And remember these are  just the relatively  small number of identified cases. There are in all likelihood millions if not billions of “infected”, but untested people running around not causing any trouble to anyone, which also means the chances of anything grave happening to you, or  anyone else  is probably  even lower from a statistical point of view than Dr. Whitty and Worldmeters have portrayed it.

So why is the press still  obsessively talking about “cases” as if there were a linear correlation between them and threat to the health of the vast majority of people?

I see only two possible explanations. The first is herd stupidity, that is,  the deeply ingrained tendency of everyone with a keyboard and a twitter feed to—for all their often histrionic attempts to portray themselves as  “fiercely  independent”—studiously  ape the central presumptions of the corporate media’s view of reality and confine their institutional  critiques to the very peripheral realms of nuance and style.

The second possibility is flat-out institutional corruption, that is, that people in very high places have told their servants in the media to keep the panic, and the enhanced control of the population it enables, going as long as possible.

This disconnect between the obsessive tracking of “cases” and the assessment of real-life dangers to the population often verges on the comical.

For example, on June 23rd, the Boston Globe ran a piece with the following headline:  “A number of Southern and Western states are seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases. Why aren’t their death rates rising, too”?  What follows is a 1000 word article that  studiously avoids what is perhaps the most obvious conclusion  a person might reach in the face of such data: that, outside the realm of senior citizens in nursing homes this thing simply might not be as fatally dangerous as we’ve been led to believe.  Unbelievably,  the prime message sent to the reader of the article about this patently good news is that we must be just as vigilant as ever going forward.

Given what we now know, it  is out and out  journalistic malpractice to continue to harp on the growth of “cases” as the prime indicator of the dangers we face from the epidemic. The only statistics that can give us any concrete sense of what we actually face in this realm are rates of ICU admissions and deaths.

The rest is fear porn, pure and simple.

Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  A Citizen’s Democracy in Authoritarian Times: An American View on the Catalan Drive for Independence  (University of Valencia Press, 2018).