Reactions to news about the ever-spreading coronavirus range from a shrug to “Oh my god, we are doomed!”
Of course, neither is exactly accurate, but they are both kind of correct. The illness, officially known as COVID-19, feels like a nasty flu. And similar to the typical flu, it is most dangerous to vulnerable people such as the elderly and people with compromised immunity systems.
The death rate is pegged at 1% to 2%. Of course, the virus does not have to kill many people to be economically disruptive for at least months at a time. We saw how many people this flu season has taken out of circulation.
By the way, that mortality rate is a guess from China’s experience and that country has not been completely transparent about the virus and its effects. The rate in Iran is closer to 16%, but that country’s experience might be an outlier.
Even at 1% to 2%, the illness could grow into a lethal, globally disruptive monster. Here’s why:
Heard About The 1918 Flu?
The influenza known as the Spanish Flu killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide at the end of World War I, which had killed from 20 to 40 million. It was so bad that horse-drawn carts were driven through city streets with the driver yelling for people to bring out their dead. (Monty Python wasn’t making that up, although their skit was about the plague.)
It took two years to infect about 30% of the world’s population and killed two or three times as many as were killed during The Great War.
But here’s the thing: the mortality rate was 2.5%. To put that in perspective, the world population was about 2 billion in 1918. Today it is 7.7 billion people, with billions of them traveling for school, work or errands every day.
Coronavirus Is Sneaky
Unlike nasty contagions like SARS and MERS of the recent past, the coronavirus does not show symptoms of COVID-19 right away. It takes two to 10 days for symptoms to surface, during which time carriers deliver the virus in their travels.
And those symptoms are deceptively mild at first, looking like the garden-variety flu. That allows carriers to sneeze and cough the virus wherever they go before they even know they have COVID-19.
But Scary Things Like SARS Were Stopped Before
True, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) were stopped before they could be global pandemics. With a fatality rate as high as 33%, a global outbreak would have been horrific.
But those diseases were stopped because they were so devastating. People became critically ill soon after infection, allowing the medical community to identity patients and quarantine them immediately.
Because the virus can lay low for some time, it will have a more extensive reach. In fact, 14 percent won’t show any symptoms but still be able to spread the virus.
But The Regular Flu Has Killed More People Than The Coronvirus, Right?
Yes, so far. A typical flu season can kill up to 600,000 people worldwide. That leads many commentators and politicians to call for a sense of perspective.
But here is something else for perspective: the mortality rate for a seasonal flu is 0.1%.
Steven A. Morelli is editor-in-chief for InsuranceNewsNet. He has more than 25 years of experience as a reporter and editor for newspapers and magazines. He was also vice president of communications for an insurance agents’ association. Steve can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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