Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Coronavirus Quiz: 100,000, 10, 80, 25, and 1000

| June 18, 2020

In one of Marx’s most memorable lines, Chico (not Karl) asks: “Who you gonna believe: me, or your damn lying eyes?”

Marx captures the disconnect between the image of the coronavirus challenge President Trump’s public health professionals and the media are presenting, on the one hand, and what we can see with our own eyes, on the other. Specifically, the specter of this virus as a deadly threat to all of us, “indiscriminate” in its targets, an “equal opportunity killer,” as one of them put it recently, flies in the face of all the facts.

Most readers know that two weeks ago US deaths from coronavirus topped 100,000. But many may not be able to pass a quiz that starts with the answers and asks the reader to identify the questions. Specifically, to what equally important questions about coronavirus are 10, 80, 25, and 1000 the answers? 

10 is the percent of deaths in the US caused by coronavirus since it claimed its first victim. 9 out of every 10 Americans who died since February were killed by other causes, congenital heart failure and cancer leading the list

80 is the percent of all coronavirus deaths that occurred among Americans over 65. Most of these were over 75, and more than one-third were in nursing homes.

25 is the age below which an individual has the same chance of dying from the common flu as from coronavirus.

And among the population under 35, the death toll from coronavirus has not yet reached 1000.  

The brute facts are that coronavirus is a highly discriminating, sharply-focused threat to a small percentage of our population. That group is the one in seven Americans over 65, especially the one in twenty over 75 with one or more preexisting conditions.

What these facts imply for an intelligent strategy in the nation’s reopening of segments of the economy and the society leaps off the page. Our strategy for combating coronavirus should be as sharply focused as the threat. If 80% of the risk of death is concentrated in 15% of the population, public policy should be concentrated on protecting these most vulnerable.

The elderly, especially those in long-term care must be cared for in ways that do not expose them to the virus. That means priority in testing and providing protective equipment for those who serve them. For Americans under 25–that is, all those who would attend daycare or kindergarten or grade school or high school or college—their risks of death from coronavirus are about the same as their risk of death from the flu that they have lived with this year, and last year, and every year for many decades. Instructions for them to wash their hands, to wear masks, to maintain social distancing are useful for their health and safety from all respiratory diseases including the flu. But if anyone had proposed postponing their education until we could eliminate these annual deaths, or closing the segments of the economy and society that serve them until we have an effective vaccine, which may be more than a year away, Marx would say that was nuts.

In sum: to defeat coronavirus, we must focus on the facts about the threat—not the fiction.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Coronavirus Quiz: 100,000, 10, 80, 25, and 1000.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 18, 2020.