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Is COVID-19 just another disease?

Deepak Shakya

4 min • 19 April, 2020

Since COVID-19 burst onto the scene, you will have seen countless articles and stories making comparisons to other diseases. So we used VAYU to perform another comparison to help answer the question, “Is it even helpful to compare COVID-19 to these other diseases?”

You will all have seen the stories about COVID-19. They’re becoming all-consuming. They fill up our news apps, our social media feeds and it feels like it’s the only thing on people’s minds these days.

Many of these stories focus on comparing the threat COVID-19 poses compared to other diseases. “It’s no worse than the flu”, some say. This mantra got tiring, didn’t it?

We thought we’d use VAYU to do a comparison of our own. We used data collated by Information is Beautiful to compare COVID-19 to its contagious counterparts, including deadly diseases such as Malaria, Smallpox, and Rabies.

COVID-19 as a pathogen

covid-19 as a pathogen

COVID-19 is a virus, obviously, and we decided to see how viruses stack up against other pathogens. We were not surprised to see that viruses were the most contagious pathogen, able to replicate quickly and often spreading by air droplets, bodily fluids, and bites. This would explain why COVID-19 has spread so rapidly.

However, viruses are simply not as deadly. Remember, pathogens don’t want to kill you – they want to live in you and use your body to replicate and spread. Death is an accident. The fact that people are dying from COVID-19 is because it is not a human disease. Coronaviruses are generally adapted to survive in bats—their transfer into humans is a biological mistake. Most viral infections aren’t deadly because killing the host does not raise their odds of transmission.

Comparing contagiousness and deadliness

Many people might be surprised to see the graph above. Yes, COVID-19 pales in comparison to swathes of other diseases in terms of both how much it spreads and how much it kills people.

Don’t be fooled, however. There is a reason diseases cluster in the bottom corner of this chart. If a pathogen kills nearly everyone it infects, it can’t infect many people. If it is very good at keeping them alive, however, then it will have more freedom to infect other people. By being able to freely transition between human and mosquito hosts, it is easy to see why malaria is the contagiousness queen.

The graph above WANTS to trick you. Think about the Spanish Flu, the world's last significant pandemic. It has a contagiousness rate and mortality rate almost identical to COVID-19. They have the perfect concoction of being able to kill millions of people, without burning through their own fuel.

What is different this time?

‍We wanted to see why the reaction to the disease is so different today to what might have happened in the past. We mapped contagiousness to the number of google hits, and the result is staggering. COVID-19 receives unrivaled exposure on the internet, leading to some unnerving truths.

We know COVID-19’s entire life story. The media has documented every moment from its conception to its dangerous present. With this much information overload, we are left with little else to react to, whilst becoming numb to what we do hear of.

What have we learned?

Our goal here was not to confuse you, but the data may have done just that. Herein lies the problem. Diseases come in all shapes and forms, and with so many markers describing their effects, we become lost in the data.

VAYU has allowed us to see some truths in this murky puddle. COVID-19 may look considerably less scary when you compare it to Rabies, Malaria, and Smallpox, but the idea here was not for you to let down your guard. Rabies and Smallpox have vaccines, and Malaria has a plethora of drugs available to control its spread.

‍When coronaviruses spread into humans in the past, as with the MERS and SARS outbreaks, the outcomes were very different. Both killed far fewer people yet at a mortality rate significantly more severe than COVID-19. This is where one must stay level-headed in the face of misleading data. A higher death rate simply meant they burnt through their fuel too fast. COVID-19 is so lethal, in a way, because it is so not lethal.

With the internet as pervasive as it is, yet still on its astronomical rise, we will see this more and more. Each disease outbreak will seem like the end of the world, but they aren’t. With a mortality rate of around 2%, civilization will not crumble. We can get lost in the articles, stories, and data handed to us by media platform algorithms, but with a level head and a simple data tool such as VAYU, we can remain calm and collected in these difficult times.

Data sources: CDC, WHO, CIDRAP