The facts, the ethics, and the protective measures you should take
I’m an expert on online disinformation, misinformation, and mathematics relevant to disease transmission. Recently I’ve been answering a lot of common questions about Covid-19 on social media — trying to dispel misconceptions and falsehoods.
In this piece, I’ve compiled a list of the most commonly asked questions and responses, with the hope of making this information more accessible. Please note: I am not a public health or medical professional; however, I have taken extra care to square all my responses here with official guidance and medical advice.
Why are people freaking out about Covid-19 more than flu?
Each person infected with seasonal influenza may infect approximately 1.3 other people. For SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19), it is estimated to infect about three times as many people (estimated at two to four). This number is called the reproductive factor — or R0, sometimes pronounced “R-naught” — and you may see it referred to that way. A higher reproductive factor means Covid-19 will lead to many, many more cases very quickly and may overwhelm an already burdened medical system.
Even if you are not at high risk yourself, we still all have a public health obligation to take interventions that will prevent its spread.
Why should I even care if I get it? It doesn’t seem that lethal.
It’s true that for healthy people under age 50, it’s not especially lethal — the mortality rate is quite low, though still up to 20 times higher than flu. But it becomes more lethal for older patients. The chart below gives good estimates for mortality rate by age bracket compared to flu. The WHO estimates an average mortality rate of 3.4%, which is around 100 times higher than flu — but do note that average is across age brackets. Current evidence suggests that the fatality rate from Covid-19 ranges from 9% to 19% for older individuals, as well as for people with conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer and those who are immunocompromised. Even if you are not at high risk yourself, we still all have a public health obligation to take interventions that will prevent spread that could overwhelm the health care system, as is happening now in Italy.