Disclaimer: The raw data used for this article is retrieved from John Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering in their Github repository which are extracted from notable sources such as WHO, CDC and other health government sites and in no way am I manipulating their numbers based on subjectivity. Data is collected from 22 January 2020 to 11 March 2020 and one must keep in mind that the numbers will continue to change as time progress.
Also, a lot of the inferences I make contains my own opinion and may be biased. Everyone should be entitled to their own opinion and you should always cross-check with external references should you require additional sources of information.
Taking Advantage of Numbers to Spread Fear
At the time of writing this article, the coronavirus(COVID-19) has taken the world by a storm. What seems to be a deadly disease as portrayed by most of the media have illicit fear and irrationality among many citizens and netizens alike.
At this point, the coronavirus is not just an epidemic, it is also a numbers game. Global news media is waiting for the numbers to hit a milestone and spice it up with strong attention-grabbing titles so that people will click and read their articles. Because more readers give them more revenue right?
That is not to say these outlets should immediately be accused of fake news. On the contrary, most journalists are trained to report facts, but that doesn’t mean they can’t season their articles with a dash of emotion.
Take the above headlines as an example. To them, 100,000 cases is a milestone worth reporting and grabbing the attention of the readers. What follows in these articles are probably just additional numbers of the highest this and the highest that.
“…From there the virus spread like wildfire, roaring through China with the first death on January 11. Since the virus exploded across the globe there have been 3,383 deaths from the killer bug. It comes as governments around the world fear a global pandemic…”(The Sun UK)
Well, what about recovery cases?
There are, but much less likely to be reported. Many journalists take advantage of a common psychological phenomenon known as loss aversion. They know the majority of the population are more sensitive towards negative news that potentially results in a higher click rate.
“…The aversive response reflects the critical role of negative emotions (anxiety and fear) to losses (Rick, 2011). In other words, loss aversion is an expression of fear. This explains why we tend to focus on setbacks than progress. Negative emotions, such as from receiving criticism, have a stronger impact than good ones, such as from receiving praise…” (Psychology Today)
The Impact of Fear on Health
I won’t dive deep into the aspects of fear. Otherwise, I might diverge away from the theme of this article. However, I would like to cover the impact of fear on health, particularly our immune system because it is the only way we can fight off the virus if we get into contact.
We know there are a lot of people who live in fear because of the coronavirus. And no I am not talking about the kind of fear where it is a fight-or-flight response. I am talking about day-to-day stress from one’s life or fear due to potential exposure to the coronavirus. Check out an excerpt from a scientific study conducted by Suzanne C and Gregory E below:
“Stressors with the temporal parameters of the fight-or-flight situations faced by humans’ evolutionary ancestors elicited potentially beneficial changes in the immune system. The more a stres-sor deviated from those parameters by becoming more chronic, however, the more components of the immune system were affected in a potentially detrimental way.” (Suzanne C and Gregory E)
Now we all know that influenza of any kind has no cure, only vaccine as a form of prevention for the common flu. The only way to fight off the virus is to make sure your immune system is efficient in combating the virus along with little help from symptom-alleviating medications.
Many of us also know that wearing surgical masks offer little to no protection against contracting the virus, albeit they do help prevent the spread of the virus.
However there will always be a group of people who play the safe card and wear one as they go out and about their daily routine. If fear is the primary reason for their choice, I’d say that a false sense of security is still better than living in fear, knowing that constant stress depresses our immune system.
Not convinced? Check out this video from Doctor Mike’s perspective on the media regarding the coronavirus:
Using Raw Data as a Reliable Source of Information
I write this article with the same objective as Dr. Mike: to educate and alleviate fears from my fellow readers by showing certain aspects of the data that are rarely reported in many media sources.
To do this, I turn to a publicly available dataset published by John Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering in their Github repository.
It is not to say that they provide 100% accurate data just because they collate all the data from worldwide government health website and local media. Unreported cases of individuals infected with the virus are bound to occur due to appearing asymptomatic in the early stages. Some doctors may not even test their patients due to the lack of symptoms.
Basic Understanding of Quantitative Risk Regarding this Issue
Some people may have their own answer to the title of this article. To some, as long as the virus exists, it doesn’t matter how many people are infected, it is considered a risk for them to just step outside of their house. Personally, I broke it down in to 3 different categories to assess the risk of contracting the virus and the severity of the illness:
- Overall Number of Cases
- Local Number of Cases
- Age Range of Individual
1. Overall Number of Cases
Confirmed cases will always be the target number that news outlets love to pick on because they will only keep increasing. But what actually are confirmed cases? Confirmed cases are reported cases that are logged and used for contact tracing purposes. The number includes both recovery and death cases.
“X People Recovered from the Coronavirus and Discharged”, said almost no title ever.
“X Confirmed Cases and Y Deaths from CORONAVIRUS”, said some clickbait title.
Not even Googling coronavirus recovery cases helps:
Plugging the raw data into Python with some cleaning and manipulation and we can visualize the number of confirmed cases. This is the number that most media like to put in their title:
After subtracting the recovery cases and death cases from confirmed cases we get the following chart:
From this chart we can see a decreasing number of existing cases in the cities of China.
Does that mean China is doing better than the rest of the world?
Not necessarily true. Keep in mind that the virus originated from China and infection started and spread early within China before it went global. The exponential rise in existing cases from January is synonymous to the exponential rise in existing cases in mid-February around the rest of the world. While many people in China have already recovered from the virus due to early exposure, many people from the rest of the world are still warded or under quarantine in designated healthcare areas.
So why is overall number of cases considered a risk? Because travelling is yet to be completely restricted. It doesn’t matter if it is by air, land or sea. An asymptomatic carrier may unknowingly invade a territory and start the spread locally.
2. Local Number of Cases
Not every country in the world is being plagued by the coronavirus. If you have played Plague Inc., an epidemic simulator game, players know that choosing Greenland as the start of the outbreak is like playing on hardcore mode due to its relatively low population and population density. Coincidentally, as of writing this article on 11 March 2020, Greenland has yet to report any case of the coronavirus.
How many existing cases in your country as a proportion to the current population should be what you are looking at when considering the risk involved in contracting the virus.
Let’s look at Singapore’s case as an example since it was one of the earliest countries to be hit with the coronavirus as well as holding the number 2 spot for highest confirmed cases in early February 2020:
What appears to be a steady decline from mid-February to early March was due to the fact that some people continue to engage in social activities as well as reporting to work even when they were sick.
“MOH director of medical services Kenneth Mak said on Tuesday that contact tracing still has a role in controlling the virus outbreak for now, and it will continue to “make sense” even if there is widespread community infection.
This is because of the amplifying effect of infected individuals who continue to engage in social activities and go to work, which leads to further exposure and infection.” — (Straits Times)
But let us focus on the numbers instead. As of writing this article, there are 82 existing cases of infected patients all under quarantine. There will always be infected people roaming around but we don’t know the numbers.
While I don’t know how many undetected cases are out there, Singapore is a country with a population of more than 5.8 million people today, making the likelihood of contracting the virus extremely low.
Personally I take the existing cases as a gauge of the likelihood that I will get infected as I go about my daily commute. With the number of existing cases fluctuating in the tens on a daily basis, it feels equivalent to striking a lottery to get in contact with the disease.
With this in mind, I just have to be alert but I’m not anxious.
3. Age Range of Individual
An early epidemiological study done by Kaiyuan Sun et.al established a correlation between age and deceased amongst infected individuals.
This reinforces my earlier point that an individual’s immune system is majorly responsible for their own recovery. There is a correlation with decreased immunity as we age as described in the following study done by Beata Berent-Maoz et. al.
As younger people generally have higher immunity and lower mortality rates, they do not have to worry much about death even if it is inevitable for them to contract the virus. Eating right, keeping your body healthy and hydrated are one of the most common ways to boost immunity against the coronavirus.
The Math Behind Epidemiology
It is easy for anyone to think that as the virus spreads from person to person, it will follow an exponential curve. That’s true for the start and it will definitely accelerate if preventive measures from respective countries are not put in place. But at some point, we need to understand that the spread will eventually slow down as shown in the logistic growth curve. Here is a video that clearly explains the math behind this epidemiology:
Back to the Question: How Worried Should You Be?
We have enough fear going around the world as it is. Spreading fear and irrationality has proven to be a lot faster than the coronavirus itself.
From panic-buying and even brawling for toilet rolls, short-term stock market crashes and wearing surgical masks when healthy out of fear, we are starting to see the surface of the dark side of humanity.
Based on your geo-location, you should be able to roughly assess the likelihood of actually catching the virus. If you’re staying in a location with really high existing cases, do your part and stay away from crowded areas and practice personal hygiene with diligence. This applies especially to individuals with existing health problems that will definitely escalate if you contract the virus.
In my opinion, keeping your body healthy and exercising preventive measures are far more important than worrying about contracting the virus. Reading the news that will most probably incite additional fear will potentially result in panic and bad decisions. The worst thing you can do is start spreading fake news and misinformation in social media.
Do your part, be responsible, stay safe, stay alert and don’t panic!
The code used to create the simple charts can be found in my Github here.