Barry Lynn
Intersection of Science and Policy

What’s just a bad flu?

As a scientist in the atmospheric sciences, I am used to dealing with complexity.  But complexity isn’t limited to the sciences — there is plenty of complexity in the social sciences as well.  In fact, the coronavirus pandemic offers us plenty of opportunities to see how government officials, policy makers, and citizens respond to a complex and difficult situation.  It’s also an opportunity to see how people can be misled, and reach absolutely absurd conclusions, such as what someone just wrote to me: “COVID is being used to push us into the new Bolshevism. Make the people scared and they can be manipulated.”

To make a person accept an absurdity, one should start with a kernel of truth.  Those who are naturally prone to suspect or doubt can then be manipulated, ironically, to believe in an untenable, false conspiracy.

Such as: someone rightly pointed out to me that the number of people diagnosed with the flu is much lower than in a typical year,  and that comparatively few people are dying from the flu. In fact, one recent US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report listed almost all deaths in one week as being from the coronavirus, rather than the flu. Possibly, social distancing and mask wearing is helping to prevent the spread of the flu, or people are dying of the coronavirus before they might have died from the flu.

Or,  there could be a worldwide conspiracy to make the coronavirus seem worse than it is.  This is a common meme sweeping the internet. If so, what else can we do but fight back against those “elites” who want us to turn over our wealth to a socialist “paradise.”

But before we do so, we should take the extra step and ask: what are the implications of assuming that this is just the flu, even a bad flu. So, let’s make this assumption — after all, most of us have lived with the flu every winter season and our government never took such drastic steps to cancel school, limit movement, and even order businesses closed.

In its last report, the CDC estimated that the year 2018-19 had about 35 million flu infections (US only), and about 34,000 deaths, or a mortality rate of 0.09%. If  this year was a typical year, we would expect similar numbers of sick with a similar mortality rate. Yet, the CDC coronavirus tracker currently estimates that there are about 25 million cases (of the coronavirus) in the United States, and 420,000 deaths.  This is a mortality rate of 1.67%!  This means that this year’s so-called flu is not twice (a bad year) but almost 19 times more lethal than the typical flu. This puts the lie to the idea that nothing unusual is going on.

Historically, how bad is this year’s so-called flu? The Spanish flu is estimated to have killed 675,000 Americans. In today’s population that would be about 1.9 million Americans dead.   The Spanish Flu is estimated to have infected more than 25% of the US population; so far 7% of the US population is infected with the coronavirus. An extrapolation suggests that our current pandemic has the potential to be  as deadly as the Spanish flu. Here in Israel, more people have died from the coronavirus than in all terrorist attacks combined!

Fortunately, there is a vaccine for the coronavirus. The vaccine was developed (in record time) because of the availability of new technology to construct a virus “mimic.” Because it’s new technology, there are people who prefer to take their chances with the coronavirus rather than take advantage of the vaccine. I think these are the people who prefer to risk the things they know of then take a risk on something that they (perhaps choose to)  know nothing about. This is potentially a very serious problem for them and for us. There is the possibility that the virus could mutate not just to make it more contagious, but even more deadly. This is what happened with the Spanish Flu — a mutation led to the death of high numbers of young adults. Hence, it is important to vaccinate as soon as possible.

But why should we vaccinate, the conspiracists said it’s just flu, even if worse than the usual? Israeli health plans are reporting that the infection rate is much lower in those who were vaccinated versus those who remain unvaccinated. They are being vaccinated against the coronavirus, not the flu!

So, don’t wait, go out and be vaccinated. Protect yourself, your family, and your fellow citizens.

Barry Lynn

About the Author
Dr. Barry Lynn has a PhD in Environmental and Atmospheric Sciences. He has an undergraduate degree in Biology. He is a researcher/lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the CTO of Weather It Is, LTD, a weather forecasting and consulting company.
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