This past month, your news feed has probably been blowing up with new updates about the spread of the Coronavirus. From pictures of overcrowded hospitals to frightening statistics, COVID-19 has incited a global sense of fear and uncertainty.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the global COVID-19 pandemic is that the true nature, effect, and scope of the virus remains largely unknown. While reports of mass death emerge daily, other medical professionals say that the virus is no greater threat than the common flu. Is it any wonder why we feel paralyzed with fear when professional opinions differ so greatly?
This uncertainty is only magnified by the disparate data emerging from the global health community. As of today, which will likely change tomorrow, the death rate in the U.S. due to COVID-19 is 1.8 percent, Italy 10.8 percent, Spain 8.2 percent, Germany 0.8 percent, France 6.1 percent, UK 6.0 percent. When we see numbers like those of Italy and Spain, with the death rate claiming one out of every 10 patients diagnosed with COVID-19, of course, there will be mass panic and governments will mandate national lockdowns.
However, these numbers are odd considering that all six countries are similar, developed countries with modern healthcare systems. How can the death rate in Italy be 10 times greater than that of Germany, a neighboring country with similar healthcare meeting EU standards? Many experts in the global healthcare community believe that these diverging statistics signal that the virus might not be as lethal as these statistics make it appear.
The COVID-19 Death Rate is Likely Much Lower Than Is Being Reported
First, there is reason to believe that we have greatly underestimated the number of people who have actually contracted the COVID-19 virus. This might sound initially disheartening; however, if true, then this means that we have greatly overestimated the death rate of those who have died due to COVID-19. This is because there has not been a set standard of testing for the virus since its initial outbreak, and the large portion of those who are getting tested around the world are already showing severe enough symptoms to go to the hospital.
Those untested individuals—perhaps millions—who have already contracted the virus and recovered aren’t recorded in our global data.
If you go into your doctor’s office showing flu-like symptoms, whether it be a cough, fever, or congestion, the only way to test if you have the Coronavirus is through an official lab-kit, and these kits, up until recently, have only been available for hospitalized patients showing severe symptoms. Those individuals—perhaps millions—who have already contracted the virus and recovered would not be recorded in our global data because they wouldn’t have been tested. Therefore, many professionals suspect that the death rate of COVID-19 is extremely overestimated because the global data has only recorded those patients who were severe enough to get tested.
There Isn't a Standardized Way of Recording a “Cause of Death”
There is another reason why many professionals expect the death rate to be much lower than it actually is, namely, because there has not yet been a standardized way of recording the cause of death in cases related to COVID-19. This might sound a bit surprising. Wouldn’t the cause of death be obvious when somebody dies on a hospital bed? Not necessarily.
If a cancer patient dies after catching the flu, then the cause of death is listed as cancer because the underlying condition weakened the body, allowing the flu to be fatal.
Take a cancer patient as an example. If a 50-year old man who has been battling Stage 4 cancer dies after catching the flu, the cause of death is still listed as cancer. Why? Because cancer was the underlying condition that made even the common flu fatal. This is because cancer and chemotherapy treatment weaken the body’s immune system, and something as common as the flu or even a minor cold could be the final straw that pushes the cancer patient’s body over the edge. In fact, most patients with underlying conditions, cancer being only one of them, die of other causes like the flu. The reason why the underlying condition is listed as the cause of death is that the condition made the body immune-compromised, weakening the body to such a degree that even the common cold could be fatal.
However, this has not been the case with the global health community recording the cause of death data for COVID-19. If the same cancer patient battling Stage-4 cancer dies after contracting the Coronavirus, the cause of death is listed as COVID-19 and not cancer. The cause of death of a 70-year-old life-long smoker who died after contracting the Coronavirus, which specifically targets the lungs, is still listed as COVID-19 and not his underlying lung condition. Though there have been many cases where healthy individuals with no known underlying conditions have died after contracting COVID-19, many more have had underlying health conditions, yet both sets of patients are recorded as having the same cause of death. No wonder there is such a disparity of data across the global health community.
So is there any proof of this? Let’s take Germany as an example because they had enough testing kits to start testing their citizens immediately after the outbreak began. As of now, the death rate from the Coronavirus in Germany is at 0.8 percent. In a recent article published in The Spectator, Dr. John Lee, a retired Pathology professor and former advisor to the National Health Service (NHS) in England, gives the generous assumption that if Germany has tested one-third of all COVID-19 cases in Germany and that one-third of these patients died due to COVID-19, then the death rate would be 0.08%, which is almost equivalent to the common flu! This is ten times smaller than the original 0.8%, which is already one of the lowest and most realistic recorded death rates for COVID-19 among the global health community.
Patients who die from COVID-19, regardless of any underlying condition, are all recorded with the same cause of death: COVID-19.
In contrast, countries like Spain and Italy are still lacking the supplies and test kits to sufficiently test their patients. As of now, the only patients who have been tested for COVID-19 within these countries are those showing severe symptoms. They have not had the supplies to test the rest of their population who were showing mild symptoms and then recovered. Is it any wonder why the death rates are so high?
These statistics should incentivize the global healthcare community to standardize the measurement and recording of vital data during similar outbreaks. Nations around the world have shut their borders, locked down their citizens, and put their economies on hold due to the staggering death rates in countries like Italy. While the outbreak of COVID-19 is severe, in the future, the global community needs to know exactly how severe a pandemic actually is while considering major efforts such as closing borders and locking down entire countries.
This article is not intended to incentivize you to relax your social distancing, sanitizing, or other precautions during this time. It’s intended to show a hopeful explanation of the seemingly inconsistent data hitting up our phones 24/7 since the outbreak of the virus. While I’m not a doctor, I am encouraged by the many medical experts who are optimistic about these numbers.