The whataboutism of infectious disease is as dangerous as it is hackneyed.
There’s a deadly virus spreading throughout China right now, but Self magazine has a calming message for Americans: “For perspective,” the publication tweeted Thursday, “the flu is a bigger threat in the US.” This was just the latest in an epic run of such comparisons: “The virus killing US kids isn’t the one dominating headlines,” the Daily Beast advised; “Don’t worry about the new coronavirus, worry about the flu,” said Buzzfeed. Even the US surgeon generalhas gotten in on this idea. There are as many as 5 million severe cases of flu worldwide each year, and 650,000 deaths; in other words, says Axios, “if you’re freaking out about coronavirus but you didn’t get a flu shot, you’ve got it backwards.”
Call it “viral whataboutism.” The appeal to hypocrisy has long been endemic to our political discourse; and in recent years the pox has spread. Now this mutant form of rhetoric has come into discussions of what could be a massive epidemiological threat. Is the new coronavirus something to worry about? Yeah, sure, but so’s the flu … and you don’t seem to care too much about that!
For goodness’ sake, stop. Yes, we know the flu is bad—no one likes the flu. But the gambit of positioning the influenza virus as the scarier of two foes is as dangerous as it is hackneyed. During the outbreak of deadly hemorrhagic fever that hit West Africa in 2014, Americans were reassured, again and again, that “Ebola is bad. The flu is worse.” It’s true that Ebola didn’t become a true threat in the United States, where two people returning from Africa with the disease died, and only two cases of new infection were recorded. It’s also true that 148 children in the US—and thousands of adults—would die from influenza over the following winter. But these whatabout statistics aren’t really meant to sharpen our vigilance around the flu, or even to encourage us toward higher rates of vaccination. They’re just supposed to calm us down and make us realize that we needn’t go to pieces over some other, more exotic-sounding disease.
Stemming panic can be a righteous goal, especially when that panic is unfounded. Ebola certainly hasn’t vanished from the earth—a recent outbreak in Congo has infected more than 3,000 people since August. But we now have a vaccine against the illness, and we’re better equipped to quell its spread. In the meantime, panic has unintended, harmful consequences. For example, just in the last week, we learned that the hoarding of face masks by healthy consumers might cause a dangerous shortage for the health workers who need them most.
In contrast to Ebola, which was discovered decades ago, the coronavirus strain behind the outbreak that began in China is brand-new to scientists. So far this pathogen has claimed 638 lives, and we simply don’t know how it will behave in weeks and months to come. By telling people not to worry—or that we should worry “more” about the flu—we may end up eroding public trust in the media. What happens if this coronavirus proves much worse than we expected? The Chinese government is already under scrutiny for downplaying the risks. Why would US news outlets want to repeat the error?
Even taken on their own terms, the flu comparisons rely on wonky and myopic math. Flu can kill Amercans by the tens of thousands, but that’s because it’s been around so long and has had so much time to spread. Millions get the virus every year, and fewer than 0.1 percent of them perish from it. What’s the rate of death from the new coronavirus? No one can say for certain, but estimates have hovered at around 20 times the rate for influenza, or 2 percent. Some virologists assert this is an overestimate, because milder cases might be getting overlooked; others counter that, given lack of access to diagnostic testing, many deaths may be uncounted. In short, it’s too soon to say. It’s also unclear how efficiently this coronavirus spreads from person to person. The total number of confirmed cases has grown from 282 on January 21 to 31,211 on February 7. It’s possible the spread will slow. Or else it might accelerate. In light of this uncertainty, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to counsel everyone to “get a grippe” on their concerns.SUBSCRIBE
All I’m saying is, I wouldn’t want to have been the person telling people to worry about heart disease instead of the flu in 1918. Before that outbreak was over, it had killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide; and, in the US, the number of deaths from respiratory illness surpassed those from heart disease for the first time in a decade. When it comes to disease—and particularly infectious ones—it’s best to avoid pitting pathogens against one another in a sort of “mortality rate Olympics”. Mother Nature doesn’t let us choose, à la carte, which problems to digest and when. It’s more like she’s piling our plates with stuff we didn’t ask for and then adding to it even though we’re full.
I get it—there are enough things to worry about already. Democracy is crumbling, climate change is advancing, children are being held in cages, health care is increasingly unaffordable and bills are looming. It’s hard to pile on concern about something that’s happening on the other side of the planet. Still we shouldn’t let ourselves be swindled of our capacity for empathy. As rhetoric, viral whataboutism tends to paper over the suffering of other people. There are more than 50 million people on lockdown at the heart of the new coronavirus epidemic, and hospitals are struggling to keep apace. Tragic stories have been mounting up, like that of the 16-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who died in Hubei province when his father—his sole caregiver—was placed in quarantine. When news articles tell us that we should focus on the flu instead, they tacitly allow us to ignore this suffering in China. When they suggest that the so-called ‘2019nCov’ coronavirus appears to be of greatest threat to the old and already infirm, they encourage us to ignore the plights of people in those groups, and take an ageist and ableist point of view. In fact, scientists are still amassing data to know exactly who is most vulnerable to developing severe disease.
Rather than returning time and time again to these flu comparisons, let’s focus on a problem we can fix. The global infrastructure for quelling outbreaks of new pathogens has been weakened by unstable funding: The World Health Organization has said that it needs $675 million to cover the cost of its response plan to the new coronavirus from February through April; and one academic paper notes that the organization’s entire 2018-2019 budget came to about $4.4 billion—just a fraction of the $33 billion annual health care and social services budget of Quebec, the Canadian province where I live. (The same paper notes that the WHO’s budget is “less than the budget of many major hospitals in the United States.”) Meanwhile, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is running out of money for global epidemic prevention and is reducing efforts in 39 out of 49 countries.
I know, I know: Budget shortfalls are affecting lots of important projects, not just those aimed at preventing epidemics of disease. Some might claim, in this age of whataboutism, that while defunding the CDC is bad, cutting food stampsis worse. But when we play this zero-sum game, we end up shortchanging ourselves. We need to say “enough,” or the whatabouts will never end.
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