There’s a deadly virus spreading throughout China right now, but SELF Magazine has a calming message for Americans: “For perspective,” the publication tweeted Thursday, “the flu is a bigger threat in the U.S.” This was just the latest in an epic run of such comparisons: The virus killing U.S. kids isnt the one dominating headlines, the Daily Beast advised; Dont worry about the new coronavirus, worry about the flu, said Buzzfeed. Even the U.S. Surgeon General has gotten in on this idea. There are as many as 5 million severe cases of flu worldwide each year, and 650,000 deaths; in other words, says Axios, If youre freaking out about coronavirus but you didnt get a flu shot, youve got it backwards.
Call it viral whataboutism. The appeal to hypocrisy has long been endemic to our political discourse; and in recent years the pox has spread. Now this mutant form of rhetoric has come into discussions of what could be a massive epidemiological threat. Is the new coronavirus something to worry about? Yeah, sure, but sos the flu and you dont seem to care too much about that!
For goodness sake, stop. Yes, we know the flu is badno one likes the flu. But the gambit of positioning the influenza virus as the scarier of two foes is as dangerous as it is hackneyed. During the outbreak of deadly hemorrhagic fever that hit West Africa in 2014, Americans were reassured, again and again, that Ebola is bad. The flu is worse. Its true that Ebola didnt become a true threat in the United States, where two people returning from Africa with the disease died, and only two cases of new infection were recorded. Its also true that 148 children in Americaand thousands of adultswould die from influenza over the following winter. But these whatabout statistics arent really meant to sharpen our vigilance around the flu, or even to encourage us toward higher rates of vaccination. Theyre just supposed to calm us down, and make us realize that we neednt go to pieces over some other, more exotic-sounding disease.
Stemming panic can be a righteous goal, especially when that panic is unfounded. Ebola certainly hasnt vanished from the Eartha recent outbreak in Congo has infected more than 3,000 people since August. But we now have a vaccine against the illness, and were better equipped to quell its spread. In the meantime, panic has unintended, harmful consequences. For example, just in the last week, we learned that the hoarding of face masks by healthy consumers might cause a dangerous shortage for the health workers who need them most.
In contrast to Ebola, which was discovered decades ago, the coronavirus strain behind the outbreak that began in China is brand-new to scientists. So far this pathogen has claimed 638 lives, and we simply dont know how it will behave in weeks and months to come. By telling people not to worryor that we should worry more about the fluwe may end up eroding public trust in the media. What happens if this coronavirus proves much worse than we expected? The Chinese government is already under scrutiny for downplaying the risks. Why would American news outlets want to repeat the error?
Even taken on their own terms, the flu comparisons rely on wonky and myopic math. Flu can kill Amercans by the tens of thousands, but thats because its been around so long and has had so much time to spread. Millions get the virus every year, and fewer than 0.1 percent of them perish from it. Whats the rate of death from the new coronavirus? No one can say for certain, but estimates have hovered at around 20 times the rate for influenza, or 2 percent. Some virologists assert this is an overestimate, because milder cases might be getting overlooked; others counter that, given lack of access to diagnostic testing, many deaths may be uncounted. In short, its too soon to say. Its also unclear how efficiently this coronavirus spreads from person to person. The total number of confirmed cases has grown from 282 on Jan. 21 to 31,211 on Feb. 7. Its possible the spread will slow. Or else it might accelerate. In light of this uncertainty, perhaps we shouldnt be so quick to counsel everyone to get a Grippe on their concerns.
All Im saying is, I wouldnt want to have been the person telling people to worry about heart disease instead of the flu in 1918. Before that outbreak was over, it had killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide; and, in the U.S., the number of deaths from respiratory illness surpassed those from heart disease for the first time in a decade. When it comes to diseaseand particularly infectious onesits best to avoid pitting pathogens against one another in a sort of mortality rate Olympics. Mother Nature doesnt let us choose, à la carte, which problems to digest and when. Its more like shes piling our plates with stuff we didnt ask for, and then adding to it even though were full.