In contrast to Ebola, which was discovered decades ago, the coronavirus strain behind the outbreak that began in China is brand-new to scientists. So far this pathogen has claimed 638 lives, and we simply don’t know how it will behave in weeks and months to come. By telling people not to worry—or that we should worry “more” about the flu—we may end up eroding public trust in the media. What happens if this coronavirus proves much worse than we expected? The Chinese government is already under scrutiny for downplaying the risks. Why would US news outlets want to repeat the error?
Even taken on their own terms, the flu comparisons rely on wonky and myopic math. Flu can kill Amercans by the tens of thousands, but that’s because it’s been around so long and has had so much time to spread. Millions get the virus every year, and fewer than 0.1 percent of them perish from it. What’s the rate of death from the new coronavirus? No one can say for certain, but estimates have hovered at around 20 times the rate for influenza, or 2 percent. Some virologists assert this is an overestimate, because milder cases might be getting overlooked; others counter that, given lack of access to diagnostic testing, many deaths may be uncounted. In short, it’s too soon to say. It’s also unclear how efficiently this coronavirus spreads from person to person. The total number of confirmed cases has grown from 282 on January 21 to 31,211 on February 7. It’s possible the spread will slow. Or else it might accelerate. In light of this uncertainty, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to counsel everyone to “get a grippe” on their concerns.
The difference is, we know the general scope of seasonal flu. An epidemic of a new disease is different because we don’t know what the limit is. If you want to bet, based on history, that even a scary new disease will probably fizzle out, you have an excellent chance of being right. But history also shows that not all such outbreaks fizzle out, and that some of them are catastrophic. You’re not wrong to worry about that, either.