If you think that practicing “social distancing” is the right thing to do, you should have stayed at home before you even heard of Coronavirus. Your chances to kill someone with a normal seasonal flu are higher than with Covid-19.
Coronavirus is dominating the news and the collective consciousness. People are panicking and practicing “social distancing”, the economy shuts down, governments are threatening the people who go outside with the prison sentences, hospitals are not coping, the world seems to be in the state of panic.
If anyone mentions the world “hysteria”, they get hushed very quickly by the calls to do the “obvious” and to protect the “vulnerable”: stay at home, don’t question the authorities, in these hard times we should assume “civic responsibility” and do what we are told for the sake of ourselves and others.
However, this is just not as obvious as it seems.
If you look at the numbers (and not at the viral exponential charts that have been spreading as fast as the panic they cause), you’ll find out that you’ve been exposing yourself and the others to higher risk before this whole Coronavirus thing even started.
So if you accept the exceptional measures imposed by the governments, you should have stayed at home before and avoided any social contact all your life, not just now.
Here is some math.
The death rate for Covid-19 is about 10 to 20 times higher than the normal flu as the graph below shows. The transmission rate for Coronavirus (or how many people you can give it to on average if you are infected) is about 2.35 (see the most recent study) versus 1.5 for the seasonal flu (see a historical study) —that is, if no restrictions are imposed.
So it may seem, at the first sight, that during these exceptional times coming in contact with other people increases your own (or somebody else’s) chances to die by about 15–30 times.
However, if you think of how many people actually carry seasonal flu, it’s about 9% of the population or 700 Mln people a year (source), so in every two week period (incubation period + disease) your chances to come in contact with an infected person is about 1 in 160 (confirmed by the statistics here).
While the chances right now to come in contact with a person infected with Coronavirus are much much lower: about 1 in every 3000 in Italy where lots of people got tested and out of 60 Mln about 20 000 are actively sick (see the current infection rate chart).
Which means, at the current infection rate, that during the “normal” flu your risk to be contaminated is about 125 times higher and your risk to contaminate others is 125 * 1.5 / 2.25 = 83 times higher.
Let’s now compare it to the death statistics, which is about 15–30 times higher for Coronavirus than for the seasonal flu: 83 / (15 to 30), which brings us to about 3 - 5 higher death risk factor with the normal flu.
The risk of you inadvertently causing somebody’s death with a seasonal flu is about 3 to 5 times higher than in the world with no flu and just Covid.
The risk of somebody going to an intensive care unit (ICU) at a hospital is about 0.2% with a normal flu (source and source) vs 10% with coronavirus (source) - about 50 times higher. Which means that at the current infection rate you are more dangerous to the overloaded hospital system with a normal flu than with Covid.
Of course, as the number of infections is exponentially growing, the risk posed by coronavirus increases. However, even if the number of the people infected in Italy were not 20000 but 100000, Coronavirus would still be less dangerous and about as deadly as the standard flu. That threshold of parity is even higher for France, Germany, and the US.
Finally, according to the latest research, about 2/3 of Coronavirus cases are asymptomatic (which is not the case with the seasonal flu), so we can adjust the death rate / ICU pressure data above by a factor of 3, which means that Coronavirus gets as dangerous as flu at about 300000 infected for the worst-case Italy-like scenario (10 times more than now). In the context where the appropriate measures are taken and the most vulnerable people are isolated, while the rest of the world continues living their lives, that risk factor further decreases by a factor of 3 (see the graph above), so for the worst-stricken country like Italy you’d need to reach about 1 Mln infected for Coronavirus to pose the same risk as the seasonal flu — both in terms of the health system load and the associated death risks.
So if you follow the math, you should have been sitting at home all that time, even before Corona has started. And probably also support the 3-month prison sentences and €200 fines for anyone who goes out, because the pressure on hospitals and the ICUs that the “standard” flu poses is much higher.
Alternatively, you can just accept that our daily behaviors pose certain risks on many different levels. And when we compare these risks to the current situation with coronavirus we will find out that while it is exceptional in some ways, it may also be detrimental to overreact and to shut everything down because of the long-term consequences that this overreaction may cause.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s important to self-isolate and to stay at home if you deem it necessary and if you have to interact to people who are more vulnerable or if you are that vulnerable person yourself. This will help keep the total infection rate low and reduce the possibility of Coronavirus becoming deadlier than the seasonal flu.
With the measures already taken, when the society is informed and the most vulnerable people — who also have the highest risk to be sent to the intensive care units — are isolated, the rest of the world can keep on working and living their social lives. Practicing normal safety, extra precaution measures, washing their hands, and avoiding coming in contact with people who may be more vulnerable (who should themselves also make sure not to come into contact with anyone).
At the same time, it’s also a great opportunity to explore the new rules of the game, enjoying spending more time on your own, in the solitude, or with the people who are close to you. Exploring the virtual meeting points and digital ways to communicate.
The consequences of the complete shutdown, however, may be much worse than any virus. Politically, socially, economically, and psychologically. Just think of all the exceptional espionage measures imposed by the governments, the taxes that will not be paid, the lost business, the impeding bankruptcies, the health risks associated with immobilized lifestyle, panic caused by stress, and half-baked vaccines, as well as the billion-euro aid packages that will be paid out (by the taxpayers), the crises that will emerge as a result, and the governments have only started to get the taste of exceptional measures as a way to increase their grip on power… So much better than terrorism!
The point is that we are all going to pay for the current panic in the years to come. As well as for not critically questioning the governments that have once again demonstrated that exceptional times demand the exceptional measures and that — as long as they have a noble excuse—they can use the measures to hide their inaptitude, seize the power, and make people obediently accept almost anything they want.
“Two factors can help explain such a disproportionate response. First and foremost, what is once again manifest is the tendency to use a state of exception as a normal paradigm for government.
The disproportionate reaction to what according to the CNR is something not too different from the normal flus that affect us every year is quite blatant. It is almost as if with terrorism exhausted as a cause for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic offered the ideal pretext for scaling them up beyond any limitation.
The other no less disturbing factor is the state of fear that in recent years has evidently spread among individual consciences and that translates into an authentic need for situations of collective panic for which the epidemic provides once again the ideal pretext. Therefore, in a perverse vicious circle, the limitations of freedom imposed by governments are accepted in the name of a desire for safety that was created by the same governments that are now intervening to satisfy it.”
Giorgio Agamben (source)