Don't compare COVID to deaths from war

tags: covid 

For the third time this week, I’ve heard someone say that US COVID deaths exceed our deaths from war. I don’t know who started this nonsense, but I’m sure they were relying on people’s ignorance of actual numbers and inability to think about large numbers. This also relies on nobody questioning the numbers. Indeed, I think the people who repeat this assertion never bothered to check themselves.

Shifting attention to accuracy can reduce misinformation online, an article in the March 2021 of Nature, says

people often share misinformation because their attention is focused on factors other than accuracy—and therefore they fail to implement a strongly held preference for accurate sharing.

The study bends over backward to suggest that most people aren’t doing this maliciously. People are lazy, don’t know how to discover information, and can’t synthesize it. Being uneducated in this way means they can’t effectively evaluate information.

What are the actual numbers?

How many deaths have we had from COVID? To be generous, I’ll concede the numbers from the WHO, which I think are inflated and overcounted from some countries. But, I also acknowledge that other countries underreport (or don’t report at all).

COVID’s severity does not rely on the relative number of cases or deaths from some other event. It’s not any better or worse depending on how it compares to something else.

As of October 16, 2021, the WHO lists about 45 million US COVID cases and about 715,000 US COVID deaths. Depending on how they handle batch reporting, that’s slightly squishy.

Worldwide, the WHO reports 240 million COVID cases and 5 million COVID deaths.

Region Cases Deaths
US 45,000,000 715,000
Earth 240,000,000 5,000,000

Those are some big numbers. But, only 5,000,000 have died, and there’s a magic number we all know from World War II: 6,000,000 murders in the Holocaust alone.

In all US wars (combat actions, police actions, whatever), we’ve lost 1,350,000 according to Wikipedia, although that counts totals from both sides in the Civil War. These numbers disputed too, and different articles even within Wikipedia have slightly different numbers. See the American Battlefield Trust’s accounting, for example. Indeed, the deaths from the US Civil War are close to our total COVID numbers.

War Combat deaths Total combatant deaths
Civil War 214,938 655,000
World War 2 291,557 405,399

But, that’s just the US deaths from our two biggest military conflicts, and that total is larger than US COVID deaths, and even the combatant total is still the same order of magnitude as COVID deaths.

I’ll take the low numbers listed on the National World War 2 Museum list.

Germany alone had 5,553,000 million combat deaths in World War 2, and as many as 9,000,000 total deaths. That’s a single war in which a single country surpasses COVID deaths, not counting all the murders of the Holocaust.

The Soviet Union lost much more: 8,800,000 combat deaths and 24,000,000 total deaths. That is, if you believe those numbers instead of something much higher.

Country Combat deaths Total combatant deaths
US 416,000 418,500
Germany 5,553,000 6,600,000
China 4,000,000 20,000,000
USSR 8,800,000 24,000,000

But, let’s look at some other numbers. In 2020, COVID was only the third leading cause of death according to the CDC. These are actually a bit higher than the same categories for 2019. This means that the single year of heart disease still beats out COVID, but we don’t take proactive measures to end that killer (well, Bloomberg tried a sugar tax).

Cause 2020 Count
Heart disease 700,000
Cancer 600,000
COVID 350,000

This is still a bit misleading though because some of those numbers can overlap. Heart disease and COVID can apply to the same death. But, that’s not the point. It’s the scale of the problem and it’s comparison to other things. COVID is as bad as it is and we don’t need to drag other numbers into it.