Fact Check: Meme Comparing Coronavirus To Other Causes Of Death Does NOT Have Accurate Figures

Fact Check

  • by: Ryan Cooper
Fact Check: Meme Comparing Coronavirus To Other Causes Of Death Does NOT Have Accurate Figures Wrong Numbers

Does a meme comparing the novel coronavirus deaths to other leading causes of death contain accurate figures? No, it does not: The meme understates some numbers while overstating others. It uses the data to suggest the national response to the COVID-19 global pandemic is overblown.

The claim surfaced in a post (archived here) published on Facebook by Brad Winegardner on March 29, 2020. It opened:

Keep Everything in Context! Question The Agenda:
"Source: University of Hamburg, Germany Data

The number of deaths in the world in the first two months of 2020

2,360 : Corona virus
69,602 : Common cold
140,584 : Malaria
153,696 : Suicide
193,479 : Road Accidents
240,950 : HIV
358,471 : Alcohol
716,498 : Smoking
1,177,141 : Cancer

Then, do you think Corona virus is dangerous?

Users on social media only saw this:

Lead Stories was unable to find the exact source of the data featured in this meme, which cited the University of Hamburg. Instead, we consulted global public health organizations such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The meme suggested only 2,360 people had died due to COVID-19 in the first two months of 2020. However, this pandemic has not reached its peak - at least not in the United States - and is still an ongoing health crisis. According to worldometers.info, almost double that amount died just on March 31, 2020. As of that date, the coronavirus has killed more than 42,000 people worldwide, and the situation is not contained.

Here's a snapshot from worldometers.info on April 2, 2020 of the climbing death toll:

screenshot_01.png In the Unites States alone, as of April 2, 2020, the death toll had exceeded 5,000.

The meme used a two-month snapshot of data - when the novel coronavirus was in its early stages - giving a misleading interpretation of this global pandemic. It also suggested efforts to contain the spread - from stay-at-home orders to social distancing measures - were overblown. After comparing fatality rates to other leading causes of death, it asked, "Then, do you think Corona virus (sic) is dangerous?"

The data in the post was not accurate.

It said the common cold was responsible for 69,602 deaths during the first two months of 2020. This would amount to more than 400,000 deaths a year. These numbers sound like figures for influenza, which is not the same as the common cold (different viruses cause them, and it is a milder infection). The WHO estimates the flu kills between 290,000 and 650,000 people every year. However, deaths are not as likely from the common cold, according to Health.com:

Colds generally don't result in any serious health issues like pneumonia, bacterial infections, hospitalizations, or deaths.

In 2017, 435,000 deaths worldwide were due to malaria, according to the WHO. That represents an average of 72,500 deaths every two months, not 140,584, as the meme noted.

Here are the other errors in the figures cited:

  • Suicide kills almost 800,000 people per year, according to the WHO. That's an average of 133,333 every two months, compared to 153,696 in the meme.
  • Road accidents kill 1.35 million people annually, said the CDC. That represents 225,000 people bi-monthly, slightly more than the post.
  • HIV-related deaths are blamed for 770,000 fatalities, per the WHO. That is more than 128,000 every two months, half what the post suggested.
  • Alcohol is believed to kill 3 million people worldwide every year, according to the WHO. That is 500,000 every two months, more than the post noted.
  • Smoking, or tobacco use, causes more than 7 million deaths globally, said the CDC. That's 1.1 million deaths bi-monthly, more than the post.
  • Cancer is the leading cause of deaths worldwide, with an estimated 9.6 million in 2018, according to the WHO. In other words, 1.6 million people die every two months from cancer-related illnesses. The post suggested 1.1 million.

All of which is to say, the post is filled with factual errors. Even so, the suggestion that the coronavirus is not a severe threat to public health is dangerous. For one thing, the coronavirus appears to be more contagious than the flu. Some of the other causes of death that the post mentioned are preventable; people could give up alcohol or smoking, for example, and the death rates would likely fall.

There are also many unknowns about this novel coronavirus, and comparing data from the initial outbreak to the leading causes of death is flawed.

There is a lot of misinformation online about the coronavirus. Here are some other fact checks by Lead Stories you may want to check out:

Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.

  Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a staff writer and fact-checker for Lead Stories, is the former Director of Programming at CNN International, where he helped shape the network's daily newscasts broadcast to more than 280 million households around the world. He was based at the network's Los Angeles Bureau. There, he managed the team responsible for a three-hour nightly program, Newsroom LA.

Formerly, he worked at the headquarters in Atlanta, and he spent four years at the London bureau. An award-winning producer, Cooper oversaw the network's Emmy Award-winning coverage of the uprising in Egypt in 2011. He also served as a supervising producer during much of the network's live reporting on the Israel-Hezbollah conflict in 2006, for which CNN received an Edward R. Murrow Award.

Read more about or contact Ryan Cooper

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