During the pandemic various public figures and private social media users have attempted to downplay the danger presented by COVID-19 by comparing the number of deaths caused by the virus to other causes of deaths. For example, a common example notes that 21,297 people died from 1/2o202 to 3/25/200 from COVID-19 and that 113,000 people died from the flu during the same period.
Downplaying is a rhetorical technique used to make something seem less important or serious. These comparisons seem aimed at dismissing the claims made by experts that the virus is a grave threat. The comparisons are also often used to persuade people that the response has been excessive and hence was and is unnecessary. While comparing causes of death is an important part of making judgments about how to use resources and accurately assessing threats, the comparisons must be done with a critical eye.
Before even considering the comparison between COVID-19 deaths and other causes of death, it is important to determine the accuracy of the numbers claimed when such comparisons are made. If the numbers of deaths are exaggerated, downplayed or otherwise inaccurate, then this obviously affects the comparison. Even if the numbers are accurate, the comparison must be critically assessed. The methods I will discuss are those I use in my Critical Inquiry class and are drawn from Moore and Parker’s Critical Thinking text. When a comparison worth considering is made, they recommend asking four questions. These questions are as follows:
- Is important information missing?
- Is the same standard of comparison being used? Are the same reporting and recording practices being used?
- Are the items comparable?
- Is the comparison expressed as an average?
While question 4 does not apply, the other three do. One important piece of missing information in such comparisons is that while the other causes of death tend to be stable over time, the deaths caused by COVID-19 have been growing exponentially. On March 1 the WHO reported 53 deaths that day. 862 deaths were reported on March 16. On March 30 there were 3215 new deaths. On April 8 the United States alone had 1,997 deaths and 14.390 people are believed to have died in the United States since the start of the pandemic. The death toll keeps rising. In contrast, while seasonal flu deaths do fluctuate, they do not grow in this exponential manner. As such, the comparison is flawed.
Another flaw in the comparison is that the flu and other causes are well established—the COVID-19 virus was still spreading through the worlds population when the comparison was made. It would be like comparing a fire that just started with a fire that has been steadily burning and confidently claiming that the new fire would not be as bad as the old fire.
There is also the fact that the death numbers are most likely an estimate from past yearly death tolls. What the numbers reflect is the number of people who probably died of those causes during a few months based on data from previous years. We also do not yet have a yearly death toll for COVID-19 and until we do, such comparisons will be quite misleading.
While the death toll from COVID-19 is high, there is also the fact that COVID-19 deaths are likely being underreported. Since testing was and is quite limited, some people who died from the virus have not had their cause of death properly reported. Even in the early days of the comparison, the deaths caused by COVID-19 were most likely higher than reported. This leads to two problems with the comparison. One is that if the other causes of death are accurately reported and COVID-19 deaths are not, then the comparison is flawed. The second is that COVID-19 deaths might have been recorded as caused by something else—such as the flu/pneumonia and this would also make the comparison less accurate.
While the comparison to other causes of death might have seemed persuasive earlier in the pandemic, the exponential increase in deaths is likely to have robbed the comparison of its persuasive power. In mid-April, COVID-19 was killing more Americans per week than automobile accidents, cancer, heart disease and the flu/pneumonia did in 2018. Somewhat ironically, a comparison of COVID-19 deaths now shows the reverse of what the comparison was originally intended to persuade people to accept: COVID-19 more dangerous than many of the common causes of death.