Coronavirus: The Phantom Menace?

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Posted: May 18, 2020 9:41 AM
Coronavirus: The Phantom Menace?

Source: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

The legendary, and liberty-loving, Canadian rock band Rush once sang in Freewill: “There are those who think that life has nothing left to chance, a host of holy horrors to direct our aimless dance. […] Blame is better to give than receive. […] You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill.” So is coronavirus a “phantom fear” (as per the Rush song) or a “phantom menace” (as per the Star Wars movie Episode I) that, thus, justifies the “kindness that can kill” from the proverbial ‘bootleggers and baptists’?

The latest death count for the USA, EU and world of about (and still counting) 85k, 150k and 300k would appear to suggest coronavirus is not just a fear but a menace. But is it really? Context matters. Let’s examine four – i.e. pandemics, influenza, causes and deaths. (Spoiler alert: it is more fear than menace; and overall deaths is the key to, quite literally, seeing that.)

A fantastic infographic by Nicholas LePan puts corona in the first context of 20 major world pandemics, not just going back 10 or 100 years, but all the way back to the second century AD. This shows it as more deadly than 5, but the 14 others... not as much. The less deadly pandemics include 200k from Swine Flu in 2009-10, 11k from Ebola in 2014-16 and 1.5k from SARS/MERS in 2002-03+2012; more deadly pandemics include 1m from Hong Kong Flu in 1968-70, 35m from HIV/AIDS in 1981-2020 and 50m from Spanish Flu in 1918-19.

The CDC estimates annual deaths in the USA from influenza (or the flu for short). Such deaths come in two series of: annual reports from 2006-07 to 2018-19; and the one consolidated report for 1976 to 2007. The former report states that: “From 2010-2011 to 2017-2018, influenza-associated deaths in the United States ranged from a low of 12,000 (during 2011-12) to a high of 79,000 (during 2017-18).” The 1976-2007 report observes that: “Annual influenza-associated deaths […] ranged from 3,349 in 1986-87 to 48,614 in 2003-04.” The American coronavirus deaths figure of 85k (and counting), as the second context here, is still in the ‘ballpark’ of the worst estimated flu deaths of 79k from 2017-18.

The CDC also keeps track of all causes of death in the USA. In January 2020, the CDC published 2018 total deaths as 2.8m with the top 10 causes as: 1. Heart disease of 647k; 2. Cancer: 599k; 3. Accidents (unintentional injuries) of 169k; 4. Chronic lower respiratory diseases of 160k; 5. Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases) of 146k; 6. Alzheimer’s disease of 121k; 7. Diabetes of 83k; 8. Influenza and Pneumonia of 55k; 9. Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis of 50k; and 10. Intentional self-harm (suicide) of 47k. Coronavirus, in this third context, is ‘middle of the pack’.

The fourth, and most important context, is overall deaths. Once again the CDC is the source for the data, which I then modeled and charted in Excel. (It was worringly difficult to find this data, and I again kindly thank statistics Professor W. Matt Briggs for helping me find it.) Overall deaths are most important as this, more than anything else, indicates if “Houston, we have a problem” or not. In particular, it shows if there are significantly more deaths from coronavirus than usual (i.e. a complementary bad) or whether people, mostly the already old and sick, are dying of this instead of flu or other ‘natural’ complications and causes (i.e. a substitute bad). The three charts I created (see at end) reveal that 2020 overall deaths:

  1. on a yearly basis, are simply increasing in line with population growth;
  2. on a 4-weekly basis (of each year), are still seasonal and less than three other years since 2013;
  3. on a first 16-weeks (of each year) basis, are trending downwards since 2014 after a peak in 2018.

So much more can be written about the corona-driven alarm, lockdowns and recession of 2020, and no doubt will be for years (if not decades) to come. The main point here, however, is the data, especially on overall deaths, strongly suggests the virus was, is and will continue to be more “phantom fear” than “phantom menace”. Although, the unprecedented and unnecessary damage done to the economy and freedom, from the “kindness that can kill”, is certainly no phantom. And in conclusion as Rush further sang: “A planet of play things, we dance on the strings, of powers we cannot perceive. … You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. I will choose a path that's clear, I will choose freewill.”