A Note on the Flu and Numeracy

March 2, 2020 4:05 p.m.
EDITORS' NOTE: TPM is making our COVID-19 coverage free to all readers during this national health crisis. If you’d like to support TPM's reporters, editors and staff, the best way to do so is to become a member.

Let me briefly address some of the emails in response to this post below about the seasonal flu. First, all your feedback is helpful and appreciated. For reasons I don’t fully I understand some readers have interpreted that post as saying either that the flu is worse or comparable or that COVID-19 infection isn’t that bad. One reader even said it played into President Trump’s efforts to downplay the problem. I strongly disagree, for reasons I’ll explain below. But before I do, for clarity, I’m definitely not saying any of those things. I say quite clearly that even at the low bound, COVID-19 infection appears to be dramatically more lethal than the flu and that all human populations have little to no immune resistance to it, which is also dramatically different from the flu.

The point to me is numeracy.

These are frightening stories because the reality is frightening and serious. It is inevitable that a lot of people are going to get sick and die in this epidemic. To the extent it’s at the lower end of predictions rather than the higher end, that will largely be because of ‘social distancing’ efforts that will be very disruptive to a lot of people’s lives and will have serious impacts on the global economy.

The key issue to me is numeracy, as I noted in this post.

When you hear about numbers of people who have been exposed or infected or suffering severe illness or dying it’s not always easy to understand what they mean. Almost 330 million people live in the United States. We all know that number or something close to it. But it’s very hard to actually imagine what that number means. It’s way too high a number to actually get your head around. Something similar applies to health statistics. These numbers are hard to place in perspective or even understand, especially when they refer to something that is scary and a real danger.

So again, the point is numeracy. If we have 100,000 COVID-19 infections in a month I don’t think we can get our heads fully around what that means without having some sense of the baseline level of seasonal respiratory illnesses that happen normally – even though this illness is much deadlier.

Context is critical to understanding. It’s not denial. I appreciate your feedback.

Key Coronavirus Crisis Links

Josh Marshall’s Twitter List of Trusted Experts (Epidemiologists, Researchers, Clinicians, Journalists, Government Agencies) providing reliable real-time information on the COVID-19 Crisis.

COVID-19 Tracking Project (updated data on testing and infections in the U.S.).

IHME Projections Site (COVID-19 epidemic model which has become the canonical model for many states and hospitals.)

Johns Hopkins Global COVID-19 Survey (most up to date numbers globally and for countries around the world).

Worldometers.info (extensive source of information and data visualizations on COVID-19 Crisis — discussion of data here).

Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Senior Editor:
Special Projects Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Publishing Associate:
Front-End Developer:
Senior Designer: