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Opinion | We’re Reading the Coronavirus Numbers Wrong

One major problem is the doing of no one in particular. The story about the coronavirus’s spread is evolving quickly, with medical authorities in China and elsewhere disclosing figures daily (or more often), and the media reporting the information immediately to satisfy the fast-paced, staccato rhythms of publishing cycles. But up-to-the-minute, blow-by-blow accounts of hard data can create mistaken impressions about the underlying facts, even if both the data and the accounts are accurate.

Last Thursday, a surge in the number of infections was reported, because of that change in official criteria. On Monday, China announced a drop in the number of new cases for the third consecutive day. Now what should we make of that?

Constant on-the-nose reporting, however much it seems to serve transparency, has limitations, too.

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.

A view from a loftier perch — a month’s, or even just a week’s, perspective — would, and will, produce far more reliable information.

As of Tuesday, the case fatality rate of COVID-19 appeared to be about 2.5 percent. That’s in keeping with what it was, for example, from the beginning of the outbreak up to Jan. 28. By comparison, the case fatality rate for the seasonal flu in the United States ranges between 0.10 percent and 0.18 percent. For SARS, it’s about 10 percent and for MERS, about 35 percent. For Ebola, it has varied between 25 percent and 90 percent, depending on outbreaks, averaging approximately 50 percent.

And so based on what we know so far, COVID-19 seems to be much less fatal than other coronavirus infections and diseases that turned into major epidemics in recent decades. The operative words here are “based on what we know so far — meaning, both no more and no less than that, and also that our take on the situation might need to change as more data come in.

Remember, too, that even if only a small percentage of the people infected with COVID-19 die in the end, the death toll in absolute numbers could still be dreadful if the total population of infected turns out to be very large.

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