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Coronavirus, the flu, and car accidents: One of these things is not like the others

Published Mar 25th, 2020 11:14PM EDT
Coronavirus vs. Flu Deaths
Image: Deliris/Shutterstock
  • The coronavirus may present flu-like symptoms, but it’s nothing like the flu when it comes to contagiousness and evolution.
  • Comparing the COVID-19 death toll with the flu’s fatality rate or the number of car accident victims, as President Trump did as he argued that the economy should restart as soon as possible, is misleading.
  • A continued exponential increase of COVID-19 cases could cripple any health care system and significantly raise the overall COVID-19 death toll.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

Governments that have made the difficult decision to shut down their countries or parts of them also have to worry about the massive impact on the economy. The longer the health crisis lasts, the more dire the effects on the economy will be. Therefore, it’s no wonder that President Trump looking to open the economy as soon as possible, maybe by Easter, in defiance of warnings from public health officials.

In his remarks on Tuesday, he likened the novel coronavirus to the flu and car accidents as he argued the cure shouldn’t be worse than the disease. It’s important to note, however, that one is not like the others in terms of immediate danger. COVID-19 might mimic flu symptoms, but that’s where comparisons should end.

“You are going to lose a number of people to the flu, but you are going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression,” Trump said, per The New York Times. “You are going to have suicides by the thousands — you are going to have all sorts of things happen. You are going to have instability. You can’t just come in and say let’s close up the United States of America, the biggest, the most successful country in the world by far.”

Trump also compared the number of fatalities, currently at around 20,000 for the coronavirus, to car accidents. “We lose much more than that to automobile accidents,” he said. “We didn’t call up the automobile companies and say, ‘Stop making cars, we don’t want cars anymore.’ We have to get back to work.”

While these points may have some merit on their own when looking at the data that we have so far — that the flu killed more people in the US this year or that car accidents are responsible for more victims than COVID-19 — it’s still far, far too early to draw any conclusions from that data.

As The Times explains, the CDC estimates that deaths from the COVID-19 outbreak could range from 200,000 to 1.7 million in the US alone. But we still don’t have enough data about the virus.

The number of fatalities isn’t even the main problem with Trump’s comparisons. The scary thing about COVID-19 and the reason why entire regions have to remain shut down is that the virus is extremely contagious. Also, it doesn’t have a treatment, at least not yet, and, as a result, it could cripple medical systems for weeks to come, including America’s. Recovery for hospitalized cases can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Hospitals that wouldn’t have the resources to treat COVID-19 patients might not be able to handle many other life-threatening conditions that are still out there, including car accidents and the flu.

The flu kills people every year, but it’s never flooded hospitals like COVID-19 might. There are drugs and vaccines to handle flu epidemics, and the resulting complications are rarely as serious as those of the coronavirus. Hospitals aren’t overwhelmed, and everyone can be taken care of without shutting down the economy.

The car accident comparison is even more pointless, unless every car accident in the US occurred at the same time. If you can pass “car accident” to anyone in your family, circle of friends, and coworkers as fast as you can pass the novel coronavirus outbreak, then you have a real problem. In real life, no matter how many car accidents happen a year, hospitals will not be overrun and they’ll be able to care for all of the victims.

India earlier this week shut its entire country down. That’s more than 1.3 billion people who have been told to stay at home — except for those providing essential services — for 21 days for India to have any chance to beat this thing. And India is the world’s fifth-largest economy. The UK attempted to go for a herd immunity approach until it realized the only way to slow down the number of cases is strict, mandatory, social distancing. Many other countries are also opting for similar measures, imposing lockdown and quarantines while trying to ramp up coronavirus testing and improve the readiness of their hospital systems. And many of them won’t be done fighting the virus by Easter.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.