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Is COVID really “not as dangerous as”?

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Since the start of the pandemic, COVID has been repeatedly declared “not as dangerous as” other diseases. Tables comparing it to other causes of mortality have circulated on social media to minimize the seriousness of the pandemic. The Rumour Detector finds that almost all these comparisons quickly became obsolete.  

As of October 20, 2020, COVID-19 has officially killed over 1.1 million victims  

COVID not as dangerous as the seasonal flu? False  

This is the comparison most often used, and it still has supporters. This September 15, a Léger poll asked: “Do you think COVID-19 is more dangerous, as dangerous or less dangerous than the seasonal flu?” Nearly one quarter of Canadians answered that COVID was as dangerous or less dangerous than the seasonal flu.  

If we only compare the total deaths due to COVID and the seasonal flu, this was true during the first months of the pandemic. But it hasn’t been true for a long time. For example, at the beginning of April 2020, some voices on social media used the 2017-2018 flu season to minimize the seriousness of COVID.  They claimed the lockdown measures were useless. Barely one month later, COVID surpassed the 60,000 deaths of that flu season. 

Even if we compare the fatalities from the deadliest flu years, the comparison no longer applies. According to the WHO, the worldwide annual death toll from the flu worldwide ranges from 290,000 to 650,000. COVID exceeded this figure by July

The H1N1 flu officially killed 18,000 people in 2009-2010. An article in the medical journal The Lancet extrapolated 151,700 to 575,400 unconfirmed H1N1 deaths. But even this figure is lower than the COVID death toll. 

Finally, the argument “not as dangerous as the flu” is misleading if it is based only on the number of deaths. The more knowledge accumulates on COVID, the longer the list of short-term and medium-term aftereffects

COVID not as dangerous as malaria? 

The comparisons between COVID and the most serious infectious diseases have often taken the form of tables presenting inaccurate figures. Or at least the comparisons are quickly obsolete. 





14,489,315 INCLUDING: 



241,625 MALARIA 

264,158 SUICIDES 


616,108 ALCOHOL 

1,231,436 TOBACCO 

2,023,119 CANCER 

2,755,098 HUNGER 

Text on right cut off 

For example, as our AFP colleagues noted in May, a table circulated on social media last spring, comparing deaths around the world from January 1 to March 30. It indicated that malaria killed “seven times more” people than COVID. This comparison soon became obsolete. Another table circulated a few weeks later, covering deaths from January 1 to May 1 and claiming that malaria killed “only” 1.4 times as many people as COVID. 

This gap had narrowed for a reason: COVID was circulating around the world and increasing exponentially. But malaria was confined to the same regions of the planet, the same as every year. Also, COVID is contagious (an infected person can infect others), but malaria isn’t.  

As of October 20, more people were dying from COVID, 1.4 times as many as from malaria.  

COVID not as dangerous as tuberculosis? 

Some of these tables also compared COVID with tuberculosis, which continues to kill 1.3 million people a year. However, there are treatments for tuberculosis and malaria. As a highly contagious disease requiring mandatory treatment, tuberculosis is comparable to COVID. But COVID killed over one million people after only nine months. If the trend continues, it will pass 1.3 million deaths before the end of the year.  

The Rumour Detector recommends that you always check the death compilation periods compared by these tables. Some made the error of comparing annual totals (the total number of people killed by a disease in one year) with the provisional total for COVID after a few months.  

COVID not as dangerous as AIDS? 

Comparisons with AIDS were also used last spring in an attempt to prove that people were worrying too much about COVID. According to the WHO, AIDS killed 690,000 people in 2019, a figure that was exceeded by COVID in July. But the comparison had another flaw. COVID detectors claim that its mortality rate is too low to worry about (under 1%). However, it is higher than the mortality rate of people with HIV, the virus responsible for AIDS. That’s because medicine offers proven treatments in the case of HIV. 

COVID not as dangerous as cancer and heart disease? 

Cancer and heart disease continue to dominate the world rankings for causes of mortality. But this comparison is misleading, because these diseases aren’t contagious. It’s meaningless to take them as an example to criticize the necessity of a lockdown or mask wearing. Also, COVID and heart disease don’t have separate existences. COVID and its aftereffects could contribute to increasing the number of heart problems

COVID not as dangerous as traffic accidents? 

The comparisons with traffic accidents are just as false. But they have been circulating since the end of January. Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX, made this comparison in an email sent to his employees on March 13. He used a death tool that was already obsolete. 

According to the Worldometer website, the number of people who died in a traffic accident in 2020 rivalled the deaths caused by COVID (a little over a million each in October). 

But traffic accidents aren’t infectious diseases, and they are a cause of death that remains constant year after year. By comparison, the coronavirus continues to grow, and its growth can be slowed by simple measures (washing your hands, keeping your distance, etc.). 

This article was originally published on the website of L'Agence Science-Presse (French only).


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