If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that everyone reacts differently to a crisis—especially when public health and safety are involved. While some of us are trying to do everything we can to keep ourselves and our communities safe and healthy, others are… not doing that. Instead, weddings, birthday parties, vacations, and family gatherings continue to chug forward as though half a million people in the U.S. haven’t died from a disease with a spread that’s still very much out of control.
There are a few ways someone might justify their less-than-conscientious behavior. We’ve probably all heard (or even said!) the lines sometime in the very-long-ago-feeling past of early 2020, about being more worried about spreading the virus than getting infected ourselves, because the virus was not that different from the flu in terms of experience or mortality. But as science and experience later proved, COVID turned out to be very much not like the flu; even “mild” infections were much more serious, uncomfortable, or long-lasting, and the number of people who have died from it is about eight times higher than the worst flu season of the last ten years. COVID spread is a huge concern, not just because the infection is serious but because the U.S. does not have the hospital capacity to give urgent care to the number of people who can get seriously ill from COVID in a freely-moving society.
But the most insidious excuse for unsafe pandemic behavior drops the pretense of caring about COVID-19 spread entirely. Instead, it relies on COVID-19’s supposedly low mortality rate: “99 percent of people who get COVID don’t die. Why should I wear a mask at AutoZone/cancel my winter getaway to Tulum/reschedule my bachelorette party for an illness everyone survives?”
It’s tempting to think this way. It’s comforting to imagine that COVID-19 is a slightly puffed-up version of the common cold that nearly everyone is able to shrug off unless there’s something like, really wrong with them. That “99 percent” is also an easy stat to remember, which makes it fun to parrot—especially in the comments section of an Instagram post or Facebook album when there’s some good old-fashioned public shaming going on.
When someone brings COVID’s “low” mortality rate into the conversation, however, they’re missing a few major pieces of the puzzle, deliberately or not. The biggest one? The “99 percent” stat just isn’t true—according to an Associated Press fact-check, scientists are still trying to determine COVID’s “infection fatality rate,” and the 99 percent stat stems largely from May 2020 analysis that has yet to be peer-reviewed or even published. Instead, it’s been twisted by people whose interests lie in pretending COVID-19 doesn’t exist. It also doesn’t gel with what we’ve already experienced in the U.S.: We’ve had an estimated 25,300,000 COVID cases as of this writing, with 421,000 deaths attributed to the virus—more than 1.5 times the supposed 1 percent mortality rate.
This 99 percent stat also doesn’t deal with the aforementioned medical resources issue: COVID appears pretty survivable, with perfect healthcare for severe cases. But many deaths have resulted from the fact that, when we have more people who need treatment in hospitals than we have hospital beds open, people die who might have otherwise survived with treatment, just because too many people are sick at the same time.
Maybe the person deploying this faulty stat genuinely doesn’t care about putting their own life—and the lives of others!—at risk; in that case, fuck ‘em. But if the person you see or hear waving this “survival rate” around is normally a caring and level-headed person, it can be worth trying to get them to unpack what they’re saying. Here’s what that might sound like.
Ask them to share their sources
Nobody wants to hear that they’re stupid and gullible, and that they’ve fallen for internet propaganda. That’s why, even if you want to reply to the 99 percent statistic with a stream of articles proving that it’s wrong, first things first: You’re going to have to listen and understand where the other person is coming from. If they heard the stat from someone they follow on social media, try to get to the bottom of where that person picked it up—and then, gently, you might want to suggest some alternative sources of information and send an article or two that counterbalances it… not a deluge of links.
Try this piece from Reuters, which breaks down the argument that a high survival rate for COVID negates the need for vaccination, or this one from USA Today, which unpacks the origins of the “99 percent survival rate” statistic and delineates the ways that survival rate varies across demographics like age and health history, and is compounded by factors like community spread. Give the person you’re talking to time and space to do their own research along these lines, and hopefully they’ll arrive closer to the truth.
Question whether death rates equal danger
Mortality is not the only problem that matters. COVID can last a long-ass time, so a few days of fun now could lead to weeks and months of debilitating sickness down the road. As if the physical hardship isn’t enough, there are also the financial consequences, like bills for COVID-related medical care (because, yeah, people are still getting hit with those, despite hand-waving about coverage from the federal government). Then there are the potential costs of being unable to work for a long period of time, because sick leave varies widely from employer to employer. Unpaid sick time with no other incoming funds could lead to people missing out on rent payments or other bills like student loan payments, credit card expenses, or preexisting medical debt.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Not at all! Don’t forget to bring up how much COVID could suck in the long run—the long term effects of contracting COVID-19, especially a severe case, are still very much unknown (scary), and have included everything from organ inflammation (even in young and fit people, like college athletes!) and permanent brain damage to debilitating exhaustion. Anecdotal evidence has surfaced all kinds of nasty complaints and ailments.
A future that could include dealing with brain fog, cardiovascular damage, chest pain, joint pain, kidney damage, reduced lung function, and loss of taste and smell is not a tantalizing prospect, (just some of the long term effects the CDC has already identified) but it’s something that COVID survival truthers are eliding when they say they’re not concerned about catching the virus.
Remind them how many deaths “one percent” of any population would actually be
Imagine if the National Hurricane Center issued this warning: “Hurricane SoandSo will make landfall in the Miami area tomorrow, there is a 99 percent survival rate so don’t take any precautions and we are sorry in advance for the 1 percent that we will likely lose.” There are over 6 million people in Miami. 1 percent of 6 million people is 60,000 lives. That would be ridiculous.
Like we said above, COVID-related mortality in the U.S. has already outpaced the “99 percent survival rate” figure—and it’s hard to argue that an acceptable or miniscule number of people have died so far. Go ahead and walk through what one percent of your hometown, one percent of a school or place of worship, one percent of a nursing home would actually look and feel like: Would the number of people gone be possible to shrug off? Would their loss be negligible? The answer is undoubtedly no. Churning through outrage cycles over government restrictions can cause people to lose sight of why we’re doing any of this shit in the first place: to prevent even more unnecessary deaths.
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