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The Cost of Unbalanced Views on COVID-19

The Cost of Unbalanced Views on COVID-19

Much remains unknown about the COVID-19 disease. This has led to a frenzied media attention on the worst-case scenarios of the coronavirus pandemic, ruling out responses based on informed common sense. And that has made the disaster even worse.

The fear of millions of deaths is to be avoided to get back to some sense of “normalcy.” For large groups of people on the socio-economic margins, the odds were, and remain, stacked high against them even in “normal” circumstances. And now the fear has given license to authoritarian overreach, whose brunt they are bearing.

To navigate through the current situation and draw any lessons, the limited knowledge about COVID-19 and an unwise reaction to it must be tackled head on.

Like all models, epidemiology models that are being used to assess the health impact of COVID-19 make assumptions, several of which are restrictive and questionable. Not surprisingly, reports typically present the worst-case and best-case scenarios. Yet, many media outlets have excessively focused on COVID-19 as “the killer” and on the worst-possible outcome from it. Any option for a response between the extremes of complete-shutdown and business-as-usual has got little media attention.

The coronavirus is indeed serious and deadly, but it has no monopoly over the cause of death. The graphs shown below use publicly available data on morbidity and highlight realities that will continue. The coronavirus itself serves as a useful backdrop.

The figure below, for instance, shows the absolute number of deaths due to COVID-19. In the U.K., about 31,200 people have died, while in the U.S., almost 79,000 have lost their lives. In Sweden, 3,175 people have died due to COVID-19 and almost 2,000 in India. Perhaps there is under-reporting of deaths in Asia, but even when inflated by factors, it is nowhere close to the death toll in the U.S. as of now.

Figure: Daily Cumulative Count of Deaths due to COVID-19 by Country (Data are from https://ourworldindata.org/covid-deaths)

The loss of over  78,616 lives in the U.S., or for that matter anywhere, cannot and must not be considered trivial. Certainly not for people who have lost their loved ones. And much can, and should, be done to save lives.

Death reigns, but, unfortunately, COVID-19 is not the only culprit. Indeed, drug-overdose claimed over 65,000 lives in 2018 in the U.S. alone.

Figure: Count of Deaths in the U.S. due to Drug Overdose (Data are from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db356.htm

And in India, where tuberculosis (TB) had been on the decline, the latest data indicated 449,000 deaths in 2018 alone. That means, India’s death toll due to TB in one year is double the global death toll due to COVID-19. 

Figure 4: Annual Deaths (per million) due to Tuberculosis in India  (Data are from https://www.who.int/tb/country/data/download/en/)

As is readily seen in the figure, TB leads to over 400 deaths per million in India. It is important to consider the total population even for deaths due to COVID-19. Among those affected, it is important to know how many are recovering from the virus. According to the latest figures, of every hundred people infected by the coronavirus, seven die. Yet, that number hides a lot of variation.

Figure: Deaths (per million) due to Covid-19 by Country (Data are from https://ourworldindata.org/covid-deaths)

Consider the figure above. Here, death per million due to COVID-19 is shown. That is, data here divides the count of deaths due to the coronavirus with the population. In contrast to the first figure, among the U.S., the U.K., Sweden and India, the U.K. has the highest rate of over 400 deaths per million. India is virtually indistinguishable from the horizontal axis due to its large population.

The unique case of Sweden is worth consideration. Sweden never went to a complete lockdown. Rather, people were asked to maintain social distancing with clear communication about high risks to the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.

Contrasting deaths in Sweden with that of the U.K., which had a complete lockdown, suggests the possibility that the entire population would not be decimated if a total lockdown is not imposed. Besides, the lack of draconian measures in Sweden means that Swedes do not need to restart — they never shut down.

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From all accounts, the virus will not disappear. The flattening of the curve is meant to slow the spread so that hospitals can be prepared. Over the next 12-18 months, infections and, unfortunately also deaths, are likely to occur.

The data clearly show that the contagion of fear didn’t prove to be productive in fighting the coronavirus, but gave an outlet for the hubris of politicians who mandated sweeping restrictions. Paternalistic political overtures continue with decisions to orchestrate and micro-manage the opening of the economy.

Suffice to say there is still no clear map of how COVID-19 will pan out. Politicians and policy makers need to respond in humility rather than impose draconian policies in haste. Science must play a role through informed common sense. 

More importantly, individuals rather than the government must ensure preservation of liberty. With fear abounding, politicians will use the opportunity to silence dissent, which is crucial for the wellbeing of people even in the time of COVID-19.

Knee-jerk responses to the coronavirus outbreak have added to the social, economic and mental woes. The fear contagion has compounded the misery. 

How we react to media-hysteria will determine the cost of present and future calamities. We might later conclude, in hindsight, that our response killed many more than the disease itself.

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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