You’ve all heard it: There are more deaths due to car accidents than to COVID-19, but we don’t shut down the economy due to lethal car accidents. Or, we didn’t shut down the economy due to SARS, MERS, or Justin Bieber. And people nod their heads as if these are rational comparisons, all the while oblivious to the concepts of research and analytical thinking.
Let’s start with the SARS comparison. I start with SARS because I once had a moped and the brakes worked just fine. Moped brakes are also far less expensive than the brakes used on 18-wheelers. If moped brakes are good enough for a moped, then no semi should need more than moped brakes to stop it. Now that we have established that the same brakes which are appropriate for mopeds are undeniably suitable for 18-wheelers, we can demonstrate that the response to COVID-19 should be identical to the response to SARS.
In 2003, there were approximately 8,100 confirmed cases of SARS and about 750 deaths—worldwide. We’re talking about a whole year of cases and the entire world. In the first 3 months of 2020, there were more than 55,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 . . . in New York alone. Not in the world, not in the US, not even in the north east. 55,000 cases in New York alone. I know, I know, those numbers are so close; I’m clearly splitting hairs. Obviously, the response to COVID should mirror the response to SARS. (Where are those damned moped brakes when you need them?) But comparing New York to the world is like comparing apples to moped brakes. Let’s go worldwide. In less than four months, we’re talking about 2.8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide—roughly equivalent to 8,100, right? The 195,000 confirmed COVID-19-related deaths worldwide is essentially equal to 750 deaths, and therefore, the response should be roughly equivalent. Give me a minute, I need to go hoard moped brakes.
I’m back. Where did I leave off? Oh yeah, MERS, which is a disease that is known to have infected 2 people in the United States. Both cases were in 2014. Neither victim spread the disease to their families or to healthcare workers. Since 2012, there have been 2,494 confirmed MERS cases (worldwide), 857 deaths attributed to MERS (worldwide), and 27 countries known to have had MERS cases. So far, over 200 countries have reported cases of COVID-19. Yeah, you guessed it . . . that’s also roughly equivalent to 27.
Let’s pick up the pace a bit. Just like the COVID-19 infection rate, cars go really fast. OK, the Datsun B210 didn’t, but let’s ignore that one.
The response to COVID-19 is aimed at flattening the curve and putting it on a declining trajectory. How have we been doing when it comes to the car conundrum?
Since about 1973, the number of deaths per year in the US due to traffic accidents has trended downward, while the population and billions of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per year has grown rapidly, the number of deaths per million people and per tens of billions VMT has shown an incredible decline. Around 1973, there were approximately 260 traffic fatalities per million people. Since 2005, the number of traffic fatalities per million people has not exceeded 150, and since 2010 it has not exceeded 120 per million people.
Still, the body count is significant and must not be dismissed. Body count is the gross number of deaths, not the net number which would be the number of deaths due to car accidents minus the number of lives saved due to the use of cars to transport people to hospitals, doctor’s offices, drug stores, etc. Now how about the net number of deaths directly attributable to COVID-19 minus the sum of the lives saved by COVID-19? Yeah, the net is essentially equal to the gross. If you are going to gauge the appropriateness of response based upon deaths, then the net is the relevant number as the basis of comparison.
Now let’s look at cars. I don’t have a source for numbers, nor do I know where to find one—but I haven’t searched particularly hard either. We know that cars are used to get people medical care, both proactive and reactive, which saves lives. While I don’t have an official number, it’s inconceivable that it is less than highly significant. I really don’t have time to extrapolate from statistics the number of lives saved by early detection using procedures that are not typically performed at home and that do not typically require an ambulance for transportation. I do not include trips requiring ambulances because they would be considered essential, and therefore allowed.
How about the flu? Of all of the comparisons I have heard, comparing our reaction to COVID-19 to the flu is the closest to rational that I have heard—at least this is comparing fruit to fruit. But it is still deeply flawed to compare the mortality rate of pre-existing seasonal flus to COVID-19. It does not take into account the fact that COVID-19 numbers are significantly reduced because we have taken drastic actions, and even with these actions, we are getting quite close to the number of other flu fatalities per year. It is true that the numbers vary from season to season. Even with extreme measures taken, COVID-19 is proving more lethal in 2020 than influenza has been in many years, and the number is still growing rapidly. There are vaccines for seasonal flus, but not for COVID-19. I haven’t even touched on things like incubation periods, asymptomism (is that a word?), availability of tests, and turnaround time for test results.
Bonus question! Of SARS, MERS, H1N1, and cars, which has caused global shortages of ventilators, N95 respirator masks, and widespread infection of healthcare workers? According to the CDC, 19% of those who are infected by COVID-19 are healthcare professionals.
I need to return to the car-to-COVID-19 response comparison. I’ll throw a bone to those who think it is valid. True story: I have a friend in Belgium, who has a friend, who in turn has a friend, who survived a fatal car accident in Belgium. Precisely one week later, a car ran into mine (in Washington State) because my friend’s friend’s friend was in a collision in Belgium. Really, it happens all of the time. Car accidents in 200+ plus countries can be directly attributed to that one accident, and the body count is climbing.
Shhhhhhh. We don’t want to disillusion the people who believe that the car-to-COVID-19 response comparison is valid.
I am not commenting on when we should or should not lift the quarantine. If you want to discuss that, fine. Just don’t use blatantly stupid and/or disingenuous comparisons to support your arguments. In case it isn’t clear, comparing shutting down the economy until cars are much safer to a temporary quarantine is also disingenuous.
And for the record, I am completely incapable of sarcasm.
I’m Randy Abrams, Independent Security Analyst, and I approve this message.