Is COVID-19 Worse Than Influenza?

Ever since COVID-19 appeared, the doomsayers and their ilk have been banging on about how this is the worst health crisis in the history of humanity. Well, maybe most haven’t been going quite that far, but there’s definitely a cadre who do. But is it really worse than other endemic respiratory infections such as influenza? I’ll be honest: I don’t actually know. And neither do you. Here’s why.

Since COVID-19 appeared, we’ve been doing crazy levels of surveillance for it. And, in many cases, erring in the direction of assuming COVID-19 even without positive tests to back up the assertion. Some jurisdictions have done better with their reporting than others. Alberta, for instance, seems to have a somewhat better approach than much of the United States, for instance, by virtue of having ramped up testing far faster and sooner than most. Naturally, with the heightened level of surveillance, we find a lot of infections that would otherwise not be known due to people having very mild symptoms or even none at all.

So how does this compare with influenza? Well, we don’t actually know. We don’t do anywhere near the same level of surveillance for influenza as we currently do for COVID-19. We also don’t panic and institute massive lockdowns and quarrantine periods when a case of influenza is discovered. Nor do we obsess and panic over elderly patients dying from complications from influenza. Nobody reports the statistics for the number of cases of influenza nor the deaths from those cases. Maybe the health authorities do have that information, or have information that is somewhat comparable, but I doubt it. Without a similar testing regime for influenza, we can’t know what the actual case counts for it are. Without the same level of testing, we won’t know how many “colds” were actually influenza. We won’t know how many people had a strain of influenza without getting sick at all.

Of course, that comparison isn’t quite fair. “Influenza” is a class of virus, much like “coronavirus” is a class of virus. It would be far more fair to compare individual strains of influenza against COVID-19. But we aren’t doing that sort of testing so we don’t have the numbers. At least not publicly. But we also need to remember that there are other coronaviruses that don’t do much more than cause the common cold. (Colds are caused by other viruses than coronavirus, too. Like rhinovirus and RSV.)

Also it’s important to note that COVID-19 is problematic because it’s new and, thus, nobody had any immunity to it prior to this pandemic. At least ostensibly. I’m not personally convinced by that. It is at least theoretically possible to have some level of resistance due to having a variation of coronavirus that is somewhat similar to COVID-19. It’s also possible that COVID-19 was moving through the population for some time before flaring up like it did and it was simply not noticed. Even so, it’s clear that there has been a large scale increase in infections.

What is not clear, due to lack of reliable information about other endemic respiratory diseases, is whether the fraction of servere outcomes for COVID-19 is particularly high compared to, say, “ordinary” pandemic influenza. Clearly, given the lack of panic over other endemic respiratory diseases, we do not generally find the incidence of severe outcomes from them worrying. So it follows that if the rate of such outcomes with COVID-19 isn’t actually significantly different, then we probably shouldn’t be panicking about COVID-19, either.

Basically, the point of this is that health officials need to start releasing comparable statistics for all extant respiratory diseases. And, to get those comparable statistics, we need to be doing the same level of testing and analysis for those diseases as we currently do for COVID-19. Maybe we are doing that level of surveillance and the information isn’t shared, but I somehow doubt it. Regardless, without that information, it’s impossible to make a properly informed choice about what to do about COVID-19 and it allows COVID-19 to be used as a convenient issue to push whatever agenda any particular person or group has. So let’s call on health officials to drown us in accurate numbers for everything. Not just COVID-19. Seems to me that if they do that, at the very least COVID-19 won’t seem quite so bad as it does when its statistics are reported in isolation.

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