Does the ‘normal’ flu kill more people than Covid-19?
If more people die from the seasonal flu - why are we tanking the world economy to fight Covid 19?
Over the months since we first became aware of Covid 19 – and even more so since we’ve gone into lockdown – we’ve been subjected to an endless stream of conspiracy theories about who (or what) caused the virus, who knew about it, and what the real ‘agenda’ behind it (supposedly) is. Theories have ranged from the virus being a Chinese Weapon of Mass Destruction, or a consequence of 5G technology through to it being a trojan horse for proponents of a Police State or a one-world order. There’s certainly some circumstantial evidence of the last theory – with Governments in countries like New Zealand recently passing legislation to give themselves draconian powers over their citizens – but it’s more likely that this is the result of poor leadership rather than the outplaying of an international socialist agenda.
However there’s one claim that’s been circulating since very early in the crisis that simply won’t go away: the claim that more people die of the ‘normal’ seasonal flu than have died (or will die) from Covid 19. The implicit question behind this claim is simple – if more people die from the seasonal flu, why are we tanking the world economy to fight this virus?
It’s a fair question – but is there any truth in the claim itself?
As is often the case, the answer is mixed. Let’s look at the numbers.
As I write this there are just shy of 5 million confirmed cases of Covid 19 worldwide. Of these, a little over 1.5 million are in the US, 7,000 are in Australia and 1.5k are in New Zealand (the 3 countries from which I draw most of my readers). It’s also worth noting that these numbers are still rising, worldwide, because the virus has not yet run its course; that the numbers only count ‘confirmed’ cases – meaning they don’t count those who may have the virus and recover from it without ever being testing; and that the figures are almost certainly skewed by China which has clearly lied about its number of fatalities.
That omission skews the results because the mortality rate is the only number which really matters. If Covid-19 was contracted by everyone who came into contact with a carrier, but virtually no one died from it, we wouldn’t be putting the energy into it that we are. It’s the number of people it kills which has caused the global response. However, even with the fake Chinese numbers, we still have enough data worldwide to know that the global mortality rate is just under 7% of those who contract the virus.
We also know that the United States, Australia and New Zealand all have mortality rates which are lower than the international average (about 6% in the US, and 1.5% in both Australia and New Zealand).
So how do these numbers compare to the seasonal flu?
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to be precise. According to one international study 9% of the global population will contract the flu in any given year and according to the World Health Organisation anywhere between 290,000 and 650,000 will die from it. That’s a global mortality rate of between .00004% and .00008%. In the US the CDC estimates that up to 56,000 people will die of flu in any given year, in Australia that number is estimated at up to 3,000 people, and in New Zealand the number is estimated at up to 500 people.
That compares to around 320,000 fatalities from Covid-19, to date – so even based on those numbers we can draw a pretty clear conclusion: Many many more people will die in a ‘bad’ flu year than will die from Covid-19.
So are the critics right? Have we grossly overreacted?
Well, not so fast. There’s a strong argument to suggest that the reason that the Covid fatalities are lower (so far) is because nations have taken drastic action to contain the virus. We don’t actually know what the rate of contraction would have been if it had been left to run its course – but based on the 9% contraction rate of the typical flu and a 7% mortality rate this could have translated into up to 3 million cases in the US and 210,000 deaths (against the 91,000 actual deaths so far). In Australia we could have seen around 2,250,000 cases and 157,500 deaths (against 99 actual deaths so far). And in New Zealand we could have seen around 440,000 cases and 30,800 deaths (against 21 actual deaths so far).
For me, these numbers justify the actions taken to fight the virus – although not necessarily the severity with which those measures were applied. In my view, a more pragmatic, flexible and wisdom based approach here in New Zealand would have achieved the same results without totally destroying the economy in the process – but that’s a debate for another day and another article.
Meanwhile, and still in New Zealand, these numbers also allow us to put a dollar value on each life saved. We can do this by adding the amount dedicated to responding to the economic impact of Covid-19, in the Governments Budget ($50 billion) to the initial hit to GDP estimated by Treasury ($9.5 billion) to come up with a figure of $59.5 billion. If we then divide this number by the worst case scenario of 30,800 Covid deaths we come up with a figure of a little over $1.9 million per life saved.
I have no problem with this expenditure and see it as the necessary cost of living in a decent society which values its people – but it does raise some interesting moral questions about our approach to other preventable conditions.
For instance, we now know that up to 500 New Zealanders will die, per year, from seasonal influenza. If we applied the same $1.9 million per person that we’ve spent saving lives which might otherwise have been lost to Covid-19 we get a figure of a little under $1 billion to prevent influenza related deaths. Why hasn’t this happened? Are these lives somehow less ‘valuable’ or important?
The same argument could be applied to other ‘preventable’ causes of death such as suicide, breast cancer, motor vehicle accidents and others. Collectively, tens of thousands of kiwis die, each year, from entirely preventable diseases and events – so what makes saving those lives any less important than the lives of potential Covid victims? On what moral basis have we made the economic decision regarding who should live and who should die? What is the value of a human life?
The answer to that question is likely to be layered. We responded to Covid 19 because we were following the edicts of the World Health Organisation; because other nations were responding to it; because we were already starting to see the death toll rise in other countries; and sadly because (as the crisis developed) the Coalition saw political and electoral value in the exposure the crisis was providing them.
Perhaps, rather than being led by the nose by WHO, we should work to develop a more independent approach to the way in which we deal with preventable conditions. I’m certainly not suggesting that we should bankrupt the country – but if we genuinely believe that every life has value we need to adopt a new approach to the way in which we protect our own.
Anything else smacks of hypocrisy.
- The numbers I have used in this article used are very broad and are intended to make a general point
- I welcome any peer review and improvement of my numbers or assumptions