“We fear what we do not understand.”
Fueled by infections of the powerful and famous, fear of the coronavirus reached panic level across the world on Thursday. In Australia, Tom Hanks and his wife tested positive for the virus, and a famed Formula One racing team, McLaren, pulled out of the Australian Grand Prix, before the entire event was later cancelled because one of the McLaren race team members tested positive.
In the United States, the National Basketball Association suspended their season indefinitely after Utah Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive for the virus. Suddenly, we all “know” someone who has been infected, and the whole thing seems a lot more personal.
The panic didn’t stop there. The NCAA canceled it’s national championship tournament, giving a brand new meaning to the term “March Madness.”
Then governors in several states created quarantine zones, called in the national guard, and issued executive orders shutting down their public school systems and limiting the size of public gatherings.
Disneyland in California announced it will close its doors starting next week. And late Thursday, the beating heart of Florida’s tourism economy – DisneyWorld – announced it would shut down for the remainder of March.
The Drudge Report, which garners 25 million page views per day, and hit 44 million on Thursday alone, featured a screaming, red-lettered headline:
150 MILLION AMERICANS COULD GET INFECTED
It’s the kind of headline that gets attention. That many infected Americans would make even the most wild-eyed conspiracy theorist look sensible while standing watch over the machine gun nest guarding the entrance to a sandbagged, backyard survival bunker.
But the headline is bogus. The article should get the reporter who wrote it and the editor who published it fired, and the politicians who promoted the misleading information should be driven from office for inciting panic.
Sadly, it’s not the only example of intentionally misleading, terrifying journalism. In the Washington Post, another headline proclaimed:
Coronavirus burial pits so vast they can be seen from space
Burial “pits” so vast they can be seen from space? Whoa. Those must be massive holes in the ground, right? With tens of thousands of dead bodies being bulldozed to prevent the world from knowing just how many have died.
Nevermind that Google Earth’s satellite view is so powerful we can count the number of chairs our neighbor has on his patio. Reading the story, we learn that Iran, which has 10,000 infections in a nation of 81.5 million people, has just 429 total dead, and a number of those were in a town with inadequate cemetery space. They had to dig some additional graves – not “vast pits” – yet the Washington Post is so desperate for clicks, they justify a headline that conjures up imagery of mass graves holding thousands of corpses.
Like the Drudge Report headline, it’s fake news at its worst. And it’s disgusting.
Without context and a deeper understanding of the underlying facts surrounding the virus, it’s easy to understand why politicians, CEO’s, college presidents, and executives worldwide are pushing the panic button. Politically speaking, the media is giving these leaders no choice but to play it extremely safe, lest they be blamed for endangering the people they are responsible for protecting.
But a simple read through of these news articles predicting mass casualties in the United States, or playing up the death toll around the world reveals major plot holes.
For starters, the Drudge headline contains a word that should instantly set off clickbait alarms: the word “could.” Of course 150 million Americans could get infected if we went around licking the freshly used forks and spoons of other Americans known to be infected. But in that case, why stop at 150 million Americans? Why not say ALL Americans could be infected, if only everyone threw caution to the wind and broke into the local hospital quarantine ward, breathing in every sneeze from the local coronavirus victims?
That article, and most other alarmist news coverage, leaves out crucial context. In the Drudge case, which is actually written by Agence France-Presse (AFP), the story doesn’t mention in what time frame we’re talking about. Here’s the opening sentence:
Between 70 to 150 million people in the United States could eventually be infected with the novel coronavirus, according to a projection shared with Congress, a lawmaker said Thursday.
The phrase “could eventually” is critically important here, and yet it’s never explained, never unpacked, never given any further context in the story.
Another headline – this one equally alarming – at least offers some context in the body of a story published by The Hill:
Ohio health official estimates 100,000 people in state have coronavirus
That’s terrifying, especially considering China’s total infections haven’t exceeded 81,000 yet. But reading further, we start to get some critically important context and the story doesn’t seem nearly as frightening:
Not everyone with the virus has symptoms, and about 80 percent of people with the virus do not end up needing hospitalization, experts say. However, the virus can be deadly especially for older people and those with underlying health conditions.
Despite this irresponsible statement from Ohio officials, the state currently has just five known cases, and tested thirty more people. All of those came back negative.
Here’s some additional data to help put coronavirus hysteria into context:
China has a population of 1.4 billion people. They have 81,000 cases. That’s an infection rate of just 0.006%. To be perfectly clear, that’s six-thousandths of one percent, as in, take 1 percent of the population, divide that group into 1,000 parts, and only six parts are actually infected. The flip side of that means that 99.994% of the population is either completely fine or their symptoms are so mild they don’t even know they have the virus.
The world’s true hotspot right now is Italy. They have 60.5 million citizens, and as of this morning, over 15,000 cases of the virus, and cases there continue to climb. That’s a much higher rate of infection: 0.025% of the population, and it will get worse, still.
Here’s a snapshot of the current infection rate in various hotspots around the world:
If we extrapolate the infection rates found in China and Italy – the two worst case scenarios – and apply them to the United States and Florida, the projected number of infected doesn’t seem nearly as frightening as the news media would have us believe:
Despite the media hype, even 100,000 infections in the United States, where we have 350 million citizens, is just not a big number. In Florida, that’s somewhere between 1289 and 5,371 cases out of 21.5 million residents, and as the media sometimes remembers to report, around 80 percent of those cases will exhibit only mild symptoms. Compare those numbers with CDC data from the flu:
Even though we have vaccinations for it, the flu seems like a much more significant threat to public health than coronavirus. The difference is that we understand the flu. We have a lot more data about the flu. And so we do not fear the flu.
We don’t fully understand coronavirus, so we fear it. And obviously, the projections above are based on current data and worst-case scenarios playing out in Italy and China. It’s possible that the virus could mutate into something worse, or we could experience new complications in the United States that make the outbreak far worse here than in those other countries. So far though, that hasn’t happened, and there’s no indication or evidence that it will. The virus is slowly spreading in Florida, with just 33 active cases so far – and that’s also good news.
We can’t minimize the seriousness of coronavirus, particularly for those with weakened or compromised immune systems. For many people, coronavirus is a lethal threat. But for the vast majority of Americans and in particular, Floridians, most will likely never be infected, and even if they are, will never show symptoms.
Irresponsible journalism is adding to the coronavirus hysteria when the facts suggest it’s all just a bit over the top. There’s a very real possibility that we’ll look back on this week of cancellations, closures, travel restrictions and quarantines as an unfortunate overreaction to what will soon become a common and treatable infection.