2020-07-06 – “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” So said Mark Twain.
Over the weekend, Trump told us that 99% of COVID cases are harmless.
I’m going to take the most charitable view of this remark. 99% of COVID cases are, indeed, non-fatal. 99% survive. Of course, not all of the 99% will tell you that their experience was harmless, but at least they are here to tell you about it. (And we won’t know for some time whether recovered COVID patients will have any residual effects.)
But the 99% non-fatal figure is more or less correct. It’s the flip side of the lethality figure that scientists have been trying to figure out. At the moment it appears that under 1% of people who become infected with COVID will die from it. That may sound low, but it’s higher than most infectious diseases.
How should we take this piece of information? I would say that it gives some comfort. If you catch the diseases, it’s not an automatic death sentence. You will probably get over it. It may not be as much fun as that COVID party you went to test the odds, but you’ll probably get over it.
But you may die.
We usually treat threats of death with some degree of concern—even at the 1% level (or 0.5% or whatever it finally turns out to be).
Consider this. The 9/11 attacks killed 0.0011% of the U.S. Population. To prevent this from happening again, we spent several trillion dollars on wars, we sent more U.S. soldiers to die in Iraq and Afghanistan than died on 9/11 (about a half million deaths, including Afghanis and Iraqis), and we instituted an onerous airport security system and curtailed freedoms with the enactment of the US PATRIOT Act.
I’d rather wear a mask.
The Corona virus is potentially as much as 1,000 times as lethal as 9/11. Imagine the collapse of the World Trade Center in every sizeable city in the United States.
But this is really only likely if we refuse to take precautions.
Consider one of the more feared epidemics in our country’s history: polio. In 1949, there were 2,720 deaths from the disease in the United States. We were a smaller country then (less than half our current population). As a percentage, this death toll was a bit ahead of the 9/11 figure: 0.0018%.
But think about this. Polio caused a bit of a panic in 1949 at 2,720 deaths. In 2020, we’ve had 130,000 deaths and the year is only half over.
The Spanish flu in 1918 was much worse at 675,000 dead. That was 0.65% of the population of the time.
99% survived the Spanish flu. 99% survived polio. 99% survived 9/11.
We may have survived, but most of us, at the time, knew someone who didn’t. And we all participated in the precautions that were taken to prevent more deaths. They were not happy times. If 1% die in the United States from COVID, that’s over 3 million people. Wouldn’t you want to do something about that, if you could.
Statistics are clean. They are useful for many things. But they hide the messiness of death and destruction. 99% may sound rosy, but the 1% are dead.
Trump should know the significance of small numbers like this. Small numbers made him president. He doesn’t care about any other kind of number.
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Nonfatal isn’t the same as harmless.