Contextualizing COVID-19

One of the problems with the news summaries I read hammering home the point that 200,000 people have died of COVID-19 is that most people can’t put that into context, so people get away with saying things like “virtually nobody” died or dismissing the pandemic as a minor, no-big-deal thing.

Humans are bad at things like risk assessment and comprehending big numbers (I can dig up studies if you don’t believe me). A lot of the summaries I see compare this pandemic to 9/11 and various wars and combat death tolls, which is easy for people to dismiss because it’s an apples to oranges comparison — the flu has killed more people than 9/11 too, right? And for a lot of people, those events happened way before we were born.

So I went digging around the Vital Statistics database and here are 2017’s numbers for deaths in the USA:

  • Heart disease: 647,457
  • Cancer: 599,108
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 169,936
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 160,201
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 146,383
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 121,404
  • Diabetes: 83,564
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 55,672
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis: 50,633*
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 47,173

So, for context, COVID-19 has killed roughly the same amount of people (by September of 2020!) than strokes AND the flu combined did in 2017. COVID-19 has killed more people than all accidents (car, bungee jumping, all of it).

From what I can tell (and I’m definitely not an expert), COVID-19 is on track to be the third leading cause of death in the country despite all of the shutdowns and other measures we’ve taken to contain it.

Hopefully this information helps someone the next time they run into someone in their personal life who shrugs and tries to insist that the pandemic is overblown or “just a political witch hunt” or “only impacts people who are already sick anyway, right?”

[*] I had no idea what “Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis” means but given its presence on this list I felt like maybe I should go find out, so, for the curious: apparently it’s the technical term for kidney disease.


Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

1 Response

  1. Ernesto Che says:

    The problem with Covid is that there is a lot of nonsense around it, a lot of stats get mixed up, a lot of stats don’t count, and valid, critical questions that are asked by experts are treated with disdain and relegated to the “conspiracy theory” section without getting answered.

    What is clear is that a targeted approach towards the vulnerable groups needs to be taken, and protect those against Covid, instead of turning that principle upside down and get the whole society “protected”, and destroyed in the process.

Let me know what you think!