COVID-19 is worse than a bad flu season, despite online claims to the contrary

A widely shared meme claims the COVID-19 death rate without a vaccine is lower than the flu death rate with a vaccine, but that assertion is incorrect, say epidemiologists.

Meme circulates among groups that share anti-vaccination messages

A meme is circulating on social media that claims the COVID-19 death rate without a vaccine is lower than the flu death rate with a vaccine, but epidemiologists say that's not true. (Lou Gracie/Facebook )

A widely shared meme claims the COVID-19 death rate without a vaccine is lower than the flu death rate with a vaccine, but that assertion is incorrect, say epidemiologists.

"COVID is unquestionably much worse than a bad flu season," said Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

The image meme appears to have started circulating in social media groups in North America, but it's not clear what country's death rates it is referring to.

According to Health Canada statistics, as of June 17, the mortality rate of COVID-19 in Canada is 22 deaths per 100,000 population.

The rate varies by province, with some provinces currently showing a rate of zero, while Quebec's current mortality rate is 62 per 100,000. (This number reflects deaths in the total population, including both sick and healthy people.)

By comparison, McGeer said, the death rate for influenza in Canada on an annual basis is usually between nine and 13 deaths per 100,000 people, depending on severity of the flu season, though that rate can be higher or lower. She also cautioned that some influenza deaths may not be recorded as such.

"But that's with us using a lot of vaccine, and vaccine has a very significant impact on mortality due to influenza," said McGeer. "It's absolutely true if we didn't have influenza vaccine that the mortality rates would be significantly higher."

McGeer said it is also possible COVID-19 deaths could be underestimated, but it's unlikely.

"In the world of surveillance, well, nothing is perfect. I think we are probably detecting almost all of the [COVID-19] deaths," she said.

A graphic downloaded from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center on June 17 shows global mortality rates per 100,000 population for COVID-19. (Johns Hopkins University )

According to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which has been tracking the spread of the coronavirus worldwide, the mortality rate in the U.S. is even higher, at 35.75 deaths per 100,000 people.

By comparison, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shows the age-adjusted death rate in the U.S. for both influenza and pneumonia has varied quarterly over the past few years from around 9 to 16 deaths per 100,000.

Where is the meme spreading?

The meme appears to have been created in early May and posted to the personal Facebook page of a woman in Oklahoma who calls herself "RedpillRev" or "Lou Gracie" on social media, where she shares anti-vaccination information. She did not respond when CBC reached out for comment.

From there, it spread across Facebook through other groups that share conspiracies and anti-vaccination posts, some with hundreds of thousands of followers. It was also shared on Instagram, Russia's Vkontakte social media platform, and Twitter.

It has lingered across social media groups, turning up this week on the Canadian Patriots Facebook group, an anti-Liberal government page with more than 100,000 followers, where it got more than 580 shares. 

While the meme hasn't gone viral, it has staying power. Reposts of it garner hundreds of shares. Part of its popularity may be due to concerns over the development of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus and distrust of authorities, as evidenced by the groups on social media that are sharing the meme alongside debunked conspiracy theories, including that Bill Gates wants to put microchips in a vaccine.

Around the same time the meme was spreading online, the Plandemic video was going viral across multiple social media platforms, pushing anti-vaccination views and misinformation about COVID-19. 

A Yahoo/YouGov poll in May suggested only half of Americans intend to get vaccinated if a coronavirus shot becomes available, while 23 per cent said they won't and 27 per cent said they're unsure. The online poll was based on interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,640 U.S. adults, and has a margin of error of approximately three percentage points. 

By contrast, a survey by Leger Marketing and the non-profit Association for Canadian Studies released on June 14 suggested 68 per cent of Canadians intend to get vaccinated if and when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, while almost 16 per cent said they don't. That same survey also suggested only slightly more than half of Americans, about 55 per cent, intend to get the shot.

The results were based on online interviews with 1,523 Canadians and 1,001 Americans from June 5 to 7, with a comparable margin of error for the Canadian findings of 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, and 3.1 percentage points for the U.S. results.

'The public health paradox'

The meme also may play into the idea that some places that had lockdown or physical distancing measures in place didn't see many deaths, which seems proof to some people commenting on the meme that COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, isn't that bad, or is a mainstream media invention. 

"That's what we call the public health paradox," said Greta Bauer, a professor of epidemiology at Western University in London, Ont. 

"We don't see the deaths that never happened, and it's not dramatic, like pulling somebody from a crashed car at the side of the road and saving their life. ... It's not traumatic. We never see the lives that were saved.

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Bauer said it's clear physical distancing has been successful in reducing the infection rate of the novel coronavirus.

"But what it looks like in different communities really depended on how widespread the infection was in advance of social distancing," she said. "And the places that benefited the most from it are, paradoxically, the same places that are most likely to say, 'Why did we even do that? It wasn't so bad.'"

Bauer explained that early on in the pandemic, it made sense for public health officials and epidemiologists to compare COVID-19 to the flu because both are respiratory illnesses, and to get a sense of how they differ from each other.

However, that comparison may not be as useful now 

"COVID's worse than the flu in any regard," said Bauer.

"I do understand people wanting it to be within the realm of the familiar, or wanting to feel like it's not so bad. And it's because it's difficult to deal with individually, collectively, economically, psychologically."