China Is Trying to Compare the Flu to Coronavirus. That Sounds Like Fake News.

 In China, USA, Ukraine, FVEY, P5, Healthcare and Public Health

Early on in the outset of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, the recep­tion­ist at the hotel I was stay­ing at in China asked me if it was true that the United States was expe­ri­enc­ing an epi­dem­ic of influen­za that killed 61,000 people last year.

“No…” I respond­ed, per­plexed where this idea had arisen from.

In skim­ming the Chinese news, I had seen some men­tions of the flu “epi­dem­ic” in the U.S. I clas­si­fied it as typ­i­cal mis­di­rec­tion, the kind of subtle crit­i­cism of the U.S. that China’s state-owned media engages in from time to time when they are embar­rassed, frus­trat­ed, or trying to advance a for­eign policy goal.

Not all of the Chinese news arti­cles have been com­plete­ly mis­lead­ing. QQ News (not a spe­cial­ized pro­pa­gan­da appa­ra­tus) pub­lished an article that point­ed out the death rate for one set of num­bers cited was only 0.05 per­cent and that “the vast major­i­ty were old, weak, or sick. It is pos­si­ble that their health was already poor.”

Turns out the 61,000 death toll esti­mate comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, making it all the more fun for China to cite in order to boost their trolling cred­i­bil­i­ty. Like Sean Hannity when he finds a New York Times head­line he likes: “Even the lib­er­al New York Times/the American’s own fed­er­al health agency says…”

The hotel recep­tion­ist is inter­est­ed in for­eign news and opin­ion and was ini­tial­ly skep­ti­cal of the Chinese report.

“So it’s fake news?” he asked of the arti­cle in ques­tion.

“No, not fake news exact­ly. The number is basi­cal­ly true, but it’s mis­lead­ing,” I said.

In fact, if you look at the CDC num­bers for 2017 – 18, they say there were 45 mil­lion people infect­ed with the flu, 21 mil­lion hos­pi­tal visits, 810,000 long-term hos­pi­tal­iza­tions, and 61,000 deaths. Thirteen per­cent of Americans were infect­ed with at least a minor flu, appar­ent­ly. Do the math, and only 0.1 per­cent died. The fatal­i­ty rate for coro­n­avirus is estimated at 2.1 percent—well lower than SARS but over twenty times higher than the flu.

The CDC uses a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent process and dif­fer­ent stan­dards to cal­cu­late the extent of influen­za than Chinese and global author­i­ties are using to cal­cu­late coro­n­avirus. The CDC’s num­bers are esti­mates. It uses a mathematical model based on pre­vi­ous years, observed data, and other fac­tors applied to the entire U.S. pop­u­la­tion to arrive at a 95 per­cent con­fi­dence inter­val. The low end of the con­fi­dence inter­val is typ­i­cal­ly about half of the high end, while the head­line number is approx­i­mate­ly in the middle.

The CDC counts people who died after con­tract­ing influen­za from other dis­eases. As the CDC website states:

Seasonal influen­za may lead to death from other causes, such as pneu­mo­nia, con­ges­tive heart fail­ure, or chron­ic obstruc­tive pul­monary dis­ease. It has been rec­og­nized for many years that influen­za is under­re­port­ed on death cer­tifi­cates. There may be sev­er­al rea­sons for under­re­port­ing, includ­ing that patients aren’t always tested for sea­son­al influen­za virus infec­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly older adults who are at great­est risk of sea­son­al influen­za com­pli­ca­tions and death. Even if a patient is tested for influen­za, influen­za virus infec­tion may not be iden­ti­fied because the influen­za virus is only detectable for a lim­it­ed number of days  after infec­tion and many people don’t seek med­ical care in this inter­val. Additionally, some deaths – par­tic­u­lar­ly among those 65 years and older – are asso­ci­at­ed with sec­ondary com­pli­ca­tions of influen­za (includ­ing bac­te­r­i­al pneu­mo­nias). For these and other rea­sons, mod­el­ing strate­gies are com­mon­ly used to esti­mate flu-asso­ci­at­ed deaths. Only count­ing deaths where influen­za was record­ed on a death cer­tifi­cate would be a gross under­es­ti­ma­tion of influenza’s true impact.

It’s really com­par­ing chalk and cheese to com­pare the two sets of num­bers, which are cal­cu­lat­ed in dif­fer­ent ways about dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions, and dif­fer­ent dis­eases. It is cer­tain­ly clear, how­ev­er, that coro­n­avirus is the more dan­ger­ous dis­ease and is caus­ing a much bigger effect on public health and the econ­o­my. There is no need to quar­an­tine entire cities or mon­i­tor people’s move­ments within the coun­try in order to combat the flu, for exam­ple. A chart in the New York Times shows that coro­n­avirus is both more con­ta­gious and more deadly than sea­son­al flu.

Yet many American pub­li­ca­tions have also adopt­ed a ver­sion of the same line as China’s state media. “Don’t buy the media hype over coro­n­avirus,” the NY Post ran over a column. “Something far dead­lier than the Wuhan coro­n­avirus lurks near you, right here in America,” an article distributed by Kaiser Health News announced. Buzzfeed, The Daily Beast, and Self magazine, among others, all ran arti­cles on the theme.

There are a number of rea­sons, some­what jus­ti­fi­able, for exag­ger­at­ing the threat of the flu for effect. First, many of the pub­li­ca­tions are trying to encour­age people to get their flu shots (the pres­ence of which, itself makes the flu less dan­ger­ous than coro­n­avirus). Second, it is true that there was a panic over coro­n­avirus in some quar­ters.

Whether it was tabloid claims that tens or even hun­dreds of thou­sands of people were infect­ed in the first weeks when the report­ed number had only hit hun­dreds or con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries that the virus was a weapon that escaped from a lab (suggested even by Sen. Tom Cotton), cer­tain media out­lets and blog­gers really were fos­ter­ing para­noia. That para­noia did, in fact, lead to instances of racism against Chinese around the world and, last week, a riot in Ukraine over the return of Ukrainian cit­i­zens from Wuhan.

Face masks in Washington DC’s Dupont Circle area and around much of the coun­try sold out at phar­ma­cies in the U.S. after just sus­pi­cions of a few cases were first report­ed, even though the risk of catch­ing coro­n­avirus, much less dying from it, in a city of a few mil­lion with poten­tial­ly one person having the virus, is close to nil.

On February 13, a man was shot and killed in DC’s Chinatown district, an area I fre­quent­ed when I lived in the cap­i­tal. Around that same time, some friends in DC were sug­gest­ing I leave China. Yet in some ways — cer­tain­ly in terms of gun vio­lence and vio­lent crime — I am safer here than I’d be in the U.S.

Determining the proper level of fear and what kind of pre­cau­tions should be taken is extreme­ly sub­jec­tive. It depends on one’s risk tol­er­ance and how people com­part­men­tal­ize dif­fer­ent kinds of risks. We should be con­cerned about coro­n­avirus with­out pan­ick­ing about it, nei­ther down­play­ing or exag­ger­at­ing the sit­u­a­tion.

Currently based in China, Mitchell Blatt is a former edi­to­r­i­al assis­tant at the National Interest, Chinese-English trans­la­tor, and lead author of Panda Guides Hong Kong. He has been pub­lished in USA Today, The Daily Beast, The Korea Times, Silkwinds mag­a­zine, and Areo Magazine, among other out­lets. Follow him on Facebook at @MitchBlattWriter.

Image: Reuters. 

Source: National Interest

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