I first saw this graph on Facebook last month; at the time I was writing extensively about asymptomatic cases, death statistics, herd immunity, and other topics and didn’t have much margin to spare for it. Besides, multiple people have written extensively and well about this topic over the last several months as these silly comparisons between COVID-19 deaths and car accidents, heart disease, cancer, and any number of other causes of human death and suffering have been rampant.
But yesterday evening, when falling asleep at 7 PM exhausted and slightly delirious from what I thought might be COVID-19 but turned out to be from not drinking enough water while working at our outside COVID-19 clinic in 95 degree heat, which is not technically a COVID-19 related illness (and would not be recorded as one regardless of what the conspiracy theorists tell you), I came across a meme along the same lines and felt it was time to say something about these fallacious comparisons. I’m going to start with traffic accidents and heart disease today, for the sake of thoroughness, but tomorrow I’ll try to address the memes that really got my blood boiling; the ones comparing COVID-19 to human trafficking and modern day slavery.
Contagious vs. Non-Contagious Illnesses
You have no doubt seen some version of this argument before now. It usually has a very simple formula, which we will try to tackle one by one:
- Compare COVID-19 deaths to another leading cause of death.
- Ask why the other cause of death isn’t being talked about/doesn’t shutdown the economy/isn’t a national issue.
- Imply or outright state it’s because the media/doctors/the powers that be want you to be afraid for some nefarious purpose.
(In all fairness, the authors of the article above seemed to be writing it just to raise awareness about programs to help teens drive safer; the headline comparing it to COVID-19, while typical of the format this argument has taken across the internet, is seemingly just to garner clicks in this case)
We’ve seen charts like the one above, showing the “incredibly small number of deaths” from COVID-19 compared to real killers like heart disease and stroke. “See, it isn’t even as bad as the flu!” We’ve seen statistics that are next to meaningless, like “COVID-19 will only make up 5% of deaths in the US this year,” which is supposed to sound to laypeople like COVID-19 isn’t that big of a deal, but is actually a terrifying thing to hear as a physician. We’ve been asked, knowingly, why we didn’t “shut-down the economy” for H1N1 in 2009… Maybe because nobody was trying to undermine the president’s chances of re-election? We’ve been asked why we don’t social distance because of car accidents, and then been told the answer; because COVID-19 is all about creating fear.
During the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic we’ve seen physicians, epidemiologists, laypeople, politicians, and misinformation hucksters compare COVID-19 to the common cold, influenza, measles, ebola, HIV, SARS and MERS, and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. While these comparisons have often been made with false statistics or poor understanding of epidemiology and thus led to incorrect, often diametrically misleading conclusions, the comparisons themselves are indeed apt. SARS-CoV-2 is a contagious, viral illness, just like those other diseases, and the danger it poses depends on how contagious it is, how deadly each individual case is, and the long-lasting sequelae it causes, just like those other illnesses.
But the comparisons in the chart above are not all apt, because most are not contagious diseases, and fighting them requires entirely different monitoring, treatment, and prevention principles compared to viruses like measles, ebola, or COVID-19. Yes, preventing diabetes would be easier if we, as a society, decided to rearrange our lives and our community norms to focus on physical activity and healthy eating, eliminate food desserts (or is it deserts? both contribute to diabetes so I’m going to leave it as-is), provide nutrition education as core curriculum in our high schools, and take any number of other steps to become a healthier nation with better and more equitable access to healthy choices overall. But those changes take a lot of time to implement. While there are plenty of ways to help in such efforts, such as shopping at grocery stores intentionally built in food deserts, places like Waco’s Jubilee Food Market, there’s very little that you can do, right here in the middle of your afternoon, to prevent someone you are coming into casual contact with from developing diabetes or heart disease today. As passionate as you are about fighting heart disease and diabetes, you can’t go to a coffee shop and start yelling about metabolic syndrome to try to raise awareness; they kick you out for stuff like that. But you can do things today to prevent the spread of COVID-19, like wearing a mask and social distancing, and a big societal push in that direction makes sense for COVID-19, where for chronic illnesses with modifiable risk factors it makes more sense to focus on sustained, long-term efforts over generations than urgent, short-term pushes.
Me at Pinewood Roasters, trying to warn people about chronic illnesses.
Moreover, diseases like diabetes and coronary artery disease don’t typically kill you all at one time. As we’ve discussed multiple times before, these chronic diseases increase your risk of multiple other ailments, including your risk of a severe case of COVID-19. Saying we shouldn’t worry about COVID-19 because ‘look how bad heart disease is’ is a bit like saying the people on the Titanic shouldn’t worry about the iceberg, because it’s really the water that ultimately killed most of them. There’s a synergy between COVID-19 and heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions, and you aren’t doing congestive heart failure patients any favors by trying to shift the focus off of COVID-19 transmission and slowing the spread of the pandemic; that kind of approach is only going to increase the number of deaths from both conditions.
“Why don’t we shut down the economy for ________?”
But the other reason these comparisons fail is because, to the degree that the approach to treating and preventing them is similar, the responses of the media and doctors to these causes of death has been similar to that of COVID-19. Various people who share these statistics say things like, “we don’t shut down the economy over diabetes,” “we don’t close schools because of car accidents,” and “we don’t social distance and stop going to bars because of liver disease” (I made that last one up because it was the most ironic possible instance of that line of argument). Dr. Phil made this exact same argument on Fox News back in April.
But none of this is actually true, is it? One of the reasons that school gets cancelled on days with severe snow storms (or in Texas, days where someone might have seen some white stuff falling from the sky when it was the wrong season for Crepe Myrtles) is because severe ice on the roads would increase the risks inherent in traveling back and forth to schools; we cancel school precisely because there is an increased risk, above that at normal times, of people dying in car accidents. We also have tons of laws related to traffic safety, including speed limits and traffic signals, without which we could no doubt get to work quicker and be more productive, and laws about texting while driving without which doctors, at the very least, could be much more productive during our commutes. We have all of these rules and regulations in place because the danger has been recognized.
We also have laws about cigarette advertising and smoking inside restaurants and places of business, laws regarding industrial and toxic exposures, laws about medical leave for chronic, progressive illnesses like cancer, and laws about sick leave and not being fired because of medical issues. It’s true that these laws often provide depressingly little protection for employees, but they are in place and it’s erroneous to say that we don’t “allow” these medical issues to affect ‘the economy’ or ‘our freedoms’. The one key difference is that none of these approaches are proactive the way that masking, social distancing, and strategic closings are in a viral pandemic. Things like scheduled exercise breaks and company-sponsored healthy meals, are proactive ways to fight heart disease and diabetes and would definitely boost the economy if adopted widely, but they are difficult to implement and need a high degree of buy-in from both businesses and employees; they are going to require cultural changes that take time, something we don’t have a lot of in the midst of a viral pandemic. Yet the economic costs of these diseases is so great that if we could somehow drastically reduce deaths and hospitalizations from them by strategically shutting down non-essential businesses and engaging in social distancing and mask wearing for a discrete period of time, it would be an obvious win for the economy, even aside from the question of the inestimable value of those human lives. But while heart disease doesn’t work that way, contagious illnesses like COVID-19 do, and the idea that any of the measures we have adopted have been ‘overreactions’ that we ‘wouldn’t do for any other disease’ belies the fact that we definitely would if we had similar options to fight those diseases (or I hope we would; I’m probably letting my naive optimism show a little too much here).
But even apart from questions of economics, diseases like cancer, diabetes, and coronary artery disease are important topics that are talked about constantly in the news, and that millions of people like me devote literally every day of their full time jobs to fighting, preventing, diagnosing, treating, and counseling people about. COVID-19 is causing a pandemic, and it’s understandable to feel some frustration that it has sometimes seemed like the only thing the news has been reporting on; but we shouldn’t pretend that sensationalization of medical topics is new or that the media has never spent significant energy and focus on these other diseases. When something negatively effects peoples’ lives to an extreme degree, like COVID-19 and these other diseases do, people are going to be read and write about it; but unlike COVID-19, the interest is more or less sustained over the years. This isn’t just true for the news; it’s true for us, too; just look at this graph of searches from Google Trends. We are always thinking about these issues, as a society, at a pretty steady rate; COVID-19 is new and very dangerous, and so we are thinking about it now all at the same time.
COVID-19 is just as incredibly dangerous as the leading causes of death.
But the final and most important issue here, and maybe the one I should have started with, is that these statistics are lies, at least when you are seeing them shared on social media now. That graph above showing COVID-19 deaths compared to cancer and heart disease is from March, when ‘only’ a few thousand people had died from COVID-19 and the US had yet to hit any regional surges. It compares cases at the beginning of the pandemic to deaths from other causes for the entire year. But by the second week in April COVID-19 had become the leading cause of death, in deaths per day, and stayed there throughout all of April and half of May. Since then it has continued to jockey for position with cancer and heart disease (while disproportionately affecting people already battling these diseases), and is now on the rise again.
If we want to compare apples to apples, we could wait to compare the number of deaths once COVID-19 had an appreciable impact; the 2nd graph below shows COVID-19 deaths compared to other causes of death today. If we wanted to compare same-sized apples, we could look at deaths from COVID-19 since the first death was reported in the US on February 29th; the 3rd graph below shows deaths from COVID-19 compared to an equivalent time period, 154 days (and for the 2017 flu and 2009 H1N1, the slightly shorter period encompassing their entire flu seasons).
Looking at the 2nd graph, COVID-19 has already surpassed stroke, drug overdose, and the very deadly Seasonal Flu of 2017-2018, and there is zero chance that it won’t also surpass accidents and chronic respiratory diseases soon. But unlike the flu, COVID-19 did not begin to disappear in the late Spring and early Summer, and we are once again seeing a surge in deaths from the virus as we enter August. If we look at the 3rd graph, there is reason to believe that COVID-19 will settle in as the 3rd leading cause of death in 2020; but it has already dwarfed all other causes except heart disease and cancer. Even this graph undersells the true impact of the virus, since the proportion of deaths occurring in February and March was very low. If we were to look at the number of deaths in the 120 days since COVID-19 deaths began to rise at the end of March, the picture would be even more bleak; but posting more and more alarming graphs by limiting the time frame to the most dangerous months of the pandemic so far, in order to show how dangerous COVID-19 really is, feels a little too much like manipulating the data in the virus’s favor; and COVID-19 doesn’t need or deserve any help from us.
So these comparisons are problematic because they ask us to believe that our society doesn’t already devote enormous resources to these other problems and that they don’t have incredible impacts on the economy, and because they are comparing very different causes of suffering, disease, and death that have to be combatted very differently. And they are deceptive because they are deliberately using old data from early in the pandemic (using old data when you know new data is available is also called lying) and discounting whatever time period of the pandemic doesn’t support their narrative. But I think the most frustrating thing for someone like me who spends hours every day talking about and thinking about diabetes and heart disease, has devoted extra time and effort to gaining proficiency with methods of treating drug dependence and preventing drug overdose, and has spent hundreds of hours working in emergency rooms and treating people following accidents and motor vehicle collisions, is that people often seem to be sharing these comparisons not because they actually care about these other important medical issues, but because they don’t mind using them to reinforce their COVID-19 denialism and conspiracy theories… and then dropping them again once they are no longer useful or convenient. But because I’ve lost my lisinopril bottle again and apparently want to see how high I can get my blood pressure this week, we are going to save that discussion for tomorrow when we talk about the comparisons being made between COVID-19 and Human Trafficking.