A few days ago I received an email from a friend who is angry at what he describes as my “refusal to grasp the full seriousness of the Covid threat.” He elaborated: “This is a disease that has killed more than 400,000 Americans and is continuing to kill more. That’s more than 100 times the number of people killed on 9/11!”
My friend, of course, isn’t alone in comparing the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 to the number of people – 2,977 – who were killed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Making this comparison is a common practice of those who wish to sensationalize Covid’s deadliness.
A similar tactic is to exclaim that the number of people who have died from Covid is equal to the number who would perish if X-number of fully passengered-up jumbo jets were to fall from the sky – where X is frighteningly large. (For the record, the maximum number of passengers that can be carried by a Boeing 747-8 is 467. And so – because, according to the CDC, as of January 23rd the number of Americans killed by Covid is 412,592 – it’s as if in the U.S. alone over the past year 883 packed jumbo jets had fatally crashed. Imagine the headlines if these past twelve months had witnessed such a horrific record of commercial air travel!)
Yet these comparisons are worse than useless. They create severely distorted impressions that stoke an excessive fear of Covid.
Out of Context
Such comparisons suggest that, because Covid has killed more people than were killed on 9/11 – or that would be killed by some multiple number of jumbo-jet crashes – panic over Covid’s lethality is justified. But this suggestion is mistaken.
To see why, consider that the CDC estimates that the number of Americans who died of the flu during the 2019-2020 season is as high as 62,000. Yet no woman clutches her pearls, and no man slams down his palm in outrage, as she or he – scolding the unenlightened who wish to go about life normally – describes flu deaths as being “21 times the number of people killed on 9/11!” Or, alternatively, “as the equivalent of 133 jumbo jets all crashing!”
Comparisons are helpful when they can provide clarifying context. But comparing the number of Covid deaths to the number of 9/11 deaths or to numerous jumbo-jet crashes distorts context. Such comparisons wrongly imply that Covid is more akin to intentionally caused, or at least easily avoided, dramatic tragedies than it is to more mundane and often unavoidable contagious diseases and other quotidian sources of death. No serious person denies that Covid is uncommonly lethal for certain segments of the population. Yet SARS-CoV-2 is nevertheless an insentient virus much more like seasonal flu than it is like terrorists or a large fleet of negligently piloted or poorly maintained jetliners.
A second feature of such reckless comparisons is that they cut both ways. They’re available to anyone who wishes to misleadingly diminish Covid’s seriousness.
Suppose someone were to point out, accurately, that the number of Americans so far killed by Covid is only 63 percent of the number of Americans (roughly, 655,000) who die annually of heart disease, and then to conclude from this fact that Covid is nothing to worry about. Would such a comparison render this person’s counsel about Covid more credible? Of course not. For the same reason, those people who compare the number of Covid deaths to 9/11’s death toll, or to the number of people who’d be killed in X-number of hypothetical jumbo-jet crashes, do not add credibility to their counsel. In both cases, such comparisons reduce the persons’ credibility.
There is, in short, nothing about the number of 9/11 fatalities, or of World War I casualties, or of X-number of jumbo-jet crashes that is relevant for analyzing Covid.
Diseases A, B, and C
Another, more serious problem with comparing the number of Covid deaths to the likes of 9/11 fatalities or to jumbo-jet crashes is that Covid, unlike these other sources of death, kills selectively and more predictably. Covid reserves its dangers overwhelmingly for the very elderly. This truth is not diminished by being ignored or discounted by those who insist on dramatizing the threat of Covid.
Consider three different novel diseases – A, B, and C – each of which results in a total of 500,000 deaths chalked up to it. But – disease A kills only people ages 2 through 50; disease B indiscriminately kills people of all ages; and disease C kills only people ages 80 and older.
No reasonable person would be indifferent between these diseases. While each disease (obviously) is unfortunate, disease B is clearly worse than is disease C, and disease A is clearly worse than is disease B – making, of course, disease A worse than disease C. Yet each of these diseases will be said to kill 168 times the number of people killed by the 9/11 terrorists. Each of these diseases will be said to kill as many people who would die were 1,071 packed jumbo jets to fall from the sky.
Such comparisons mask important differences among these diseases. Although these diseases all kill the same number of people, they are not all equally dreadful.
One reason disease C is the least dreadful of the three is that it obliterates fewer life years than are obliterated by diseases A and B. Recent experience tells me that some people now deny the significance of this fact. But I deny that these deniers believe their denials.
If these denials were sincere, those who issue them would react with the same degree of extreme shock and sympathy upon learning of the death of an 84-year-old colleague as upon learning of the death of another colleague’s teenage child. Yet any person who so reacts would rightly be regarded, at best, as very strange and, more realistically, as emotionally defective. Mature human beings understand that death is inevitable. We understand also that every person’s chance of dying rises with age and that, even in our modern world, living into one’s 90s remains a relatively rare blessing.
There’s a second, related reason why disease C is less dreadful than are diseases A and B. Compared to those who are killed by disease A or B, those whose deaths are attributed to disease C are more likely to have had, or were more likely to contract in short order, other ailments that would have killed them if disease C hadn’t apparently done the job first. In other words, “being killed by disease C” has a meaning more ambiguous than “being killed by disease A.” Compared to the number of people whose deaths are attributed to disease C, many fewer persons killed by disease A were likely to soon be killed by some other cause – or to have death brought on by some other cause but mistakenly attributed to disease A.
The same comparison to disease C holds true for disease B, although not as strongly as it holds for disease A.
Covid-19, of course, much more closely resembles disease C than it does diseases A or B.
So please, let’s stop comparing Covid deaths to 9/11 deaths, to death tolls from hypothetical jetliner crashes, to Vietnam or World War I casualties, or to other non-pathogen-related calamities. Keeping clear the facts about Covid is difficult enough amidst the ongoing hysteria and willful misinterpretation of life’s realities. We don’t need to further thicken the fog with invidious comparisons.