Asking Critical Comparative Questions About the Coronavirus Pandemic

Based on the most recent CDC influenza report, period starting September 29, 2019 and ending March 28 2020, there were 246,842 positive specimens (influenza types A and B) and 24,000 deaths. That’s a 9.7% death rate. Of course, that not how the media report the statistic. The media reports the extrapolated numbers from the CDC, which knows that most influenza cases are not tested.

There is a slogan out in the social media world that SARS-CoV2 is not influenza. This is a red herring. I am making a point about media framing and threat selection. It’s like how we might ask why the United States bombs Libya for human rights violations when Saudi Arabia carries out human rights violations with impunity. I know a lot of people don’t ask that question, but it is the kind of question I ask all the time. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear progressives asking this question.

This virus is not a type of flu, of course. It’s a coronavirus, which is about 5-15% of the viral mix every year. However, like influenza and rhinoviruses, coronaviruses are one of the pathogens associated with pneumonia. That’s what we’re talking about: pneumonia cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

Coronaviruses are not new. We know quite a lot about them. SARS and MERS are the more famous coronaviruses that jumped from animal reservoirs and made people very sick, so we have had years of experience with the serious forms. SARS and MERS were much more serious than the present virus, which is why they had trouble spreading. To be successful, viruses need to avoid killing too many hosts. SARS-CoV-2 is, for most people who test positive asymptomatic (perhaps because of immunity?) or very mild, so it spreads more successfully. Like rhinoviruses. Most of the people we know have probably had one or more. 

To the extent that these are pathogens implicated in pneumonia, that is what is relevant to the point I am making, which actually means to make a comparison not of the virus families but to the variable response by governments and media in light of their relative lethal character. If the reasons given for the extreme reaction of governments, media, and the public hold for coronavirus, then they should hold for influenza. But they don’t and so we need to ask why. 

If influenza was reported in the way this coronavirus is being reported, then we should be much more worried about the flu, as it spreads more widely and kills more people—at least according to the CDC and the WHO. Indeed, authorities were talking about implementing some of the same mitigation strategies with the 2009 swine flu—(H1N1)pdm09—virus, but they rolled out only some of those measures. One of the particular threats identified was the risk to younger people. But swine flu turned out to be rather ordinary. In a normal flu season, the global deaths tolls are between 250,000 and 500,000. The numbers of confirmed cases of swine flue (less than two millions) and deaths (less than 20,000) were much lower (keep in mind that other viruses killed people, too). But when you estimate an upper limit of 1.4 billion cases worldwide, the death rates drop dramatically. 

So the question is why the reporting on SARS-CoV-2 isn’t using the same order of magnitude as typical estimates. If we take the upper estimates for 2009 for H1N1, the estimated number of infections is 700 times greater than the number of positive specimens. I only need to use a factor of 10 to bring the COVID-19 deaths to less than one percent. If I use a factor of 700 it looks like a normal flu season. That is an important observation. It’s an obvious one, which is why it is so astounding that we don’t hear about all the time. Why are we relying on confirmed cases to calculate death rates in this case but not in the other case?

Saying that this bug is not the flu is not a useful point. It’s a coronavirus and not an influenza viruses. What is useful to point out is that both viruses—as well as rhinoviruses—are causes of lower respiratory illness, both pneumonia (which often involves secondary bacterial infection) and ARDS and that threat selection and societal reaction are variables in explaining an unprecedented moral panic that will impose extraordinary hardship on working people.

When we think critically about frames and threat selection we engage comparative thinking. We have to compare the response to coronavirus (this particular one) to the response to other RNA viruses, such as influenza and rhinoviruses. It’s similar to comparing wars or revolutions or genocides. We’re talking about viruses. SARS-CoV-2 isn’t the Andromeda Strain. It isn’t terrorism. Coronaviruses, like influenza and rhinoviruses are a cause of pneumonia. Moreover, they’re RNA viruses.

We have to ask the critical question: Why is the death rate from influenza not calculated using the same criteria the media uses to calculate the death threat for SARS-CoV-2? If the media did that, influenza would have a much higher death rate than SARS-CoV-2. More than twice as many people have died from influenza than this particular coronavirus this pneumonia season. Are those deaths unimportant? Why didn’t we shutter society and throw millions of people out of work (to lose their homes and their health care) to save persons from influenza? Pneumonia from influenza disproportionately kills old people, yet we keep open the economy. Where is the virtue signaling mob shaming folks for going about their lives while old people die from influenza? 

Influenza is a global health problems, killing tens of thousands across the planet every year. In 2009, it killed between 150,000 to 575,000 globally. Do the comparison. You have to ask (well you don’t have to, but it seems to me that thinking people would) why this virus and not the other virus? You might suggesting I am diminishing the significance of coronavirus. Why are you diminishing the significance of influenza?

Other questions critical thinkers ask:

What are the consequences of these extreme mitigation measures—extraordinary police and surveillance measures, extreme deprivation of individual liberty, shutting people off from human contact, many in the twilight of their lives, and a host of other problems along lines of livelihood, freedom, emotional and psychological well being, etc. Who benefits from the crisis? Who loses from it? 

Why were hospitals so unprepared for this pandemic? Decades of privatization and the social logic of bureaucratic rationalization have led to drastic cost-cutting measures to increase profits for shareholders. The logic of Fordism shapes the system, the logic of just-in-time production. As a fairly bad flu seasons wound down, some hospitals were unable to handle the case load from another virus. And this should really trouble us considering the 2017-2018 flu season sent up huge red flags about readiness. By treating the present situation as unusual, that the virus is some unique demonic force, the frame functions to mask the failure of the medical-industrial complex to be prepared for an out-of-season crisis.

So here’s my question to those who get bent out of shape when the response to this virus is compared to the response to other viruses: Why do you think we shouldn’t ask comparative questions about public response to viral pathogens? Some folks clearly think we shouldn’t because they pronounce the comparison moot. Why does questioning societal reactions so trouble you? It’s what we do in social science all the time.

These are a rhetorical question, of course. I know why the slogan is being disseminated. We aren’t supposed to do the comparative work since this works against portraying the virus as a unique existential threat. By making it a novel threat, it frees governments to pull things off the shelf they have been wanting use for a long time. The justifies actions without any real popular discussion. And it creates a public that will clamor for vaccines and antivirals.

There is an interest in ramping up panic. Remember the case of Wolfgang Wodarg (Council of Europe) who, in 2009, pointed out that major pharmaceutical companies had organized a “campaign of panic” to press WHO into declaring a pandemic to move product. If a vaccine is developed (and there will be more than one product), given the panic, there will be no shortage of customers. I have to be honest, I don’t trust the corporate media to operate in the public good. They are corporations selling audiences to other corporations.

There’s a very good reason for being concerned about how governments and corporations frame such things. In 1976, pharmaceutical corporations and governments around the world, including the US government, manufactured a swine flu epidemic. Despite the fact that there were no confirmed cases of swine flu anywhere on the planet outside of five soldiers at Fort Dix, a US military facility in New Jersey (a suspicious occurrence in itself), the government rolled out a massive vaccination program accompanied by an extensive propaganda campaign involving print and television media. Scores of Americans were injected with the experimental swine flu vaccine.   

One consequence of the program was scores of people suffering vaccine injury, several hundred of them developing a sometimes lethal and always devastating paralytic condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome, or GBS.  The government, shamefaced, had to cancel the program. To this day, mainstream news organizations continue to run interference for vaccine manufacturers by denying the link between vaccines and GBS.  However, as Dr. Meryl Nass, an expert on vaccines and bioterrorism, points out, at least ten separate studies of the 1976 swine flu vaccine confirmed the link.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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