That wry headline has been making the rounds on the internet for years now, and it seems quite likely to remain popular, mostly because of its fundamental irony—If the world ends, we’re all gonna be in the same boat.
But we are NOT all equally in danger of contracting or dying of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the harder-to-pronounce SARS-CoV-2 virus). In fact, medical researchers say that plenty of people are walking around right now who would test positive for COVID-19 and yet are suffering no discernable symptoms at all or experiencing what they imagine to be a mild flu.
On the other hand, north Italy reports more than 27,000 cases of COVID-19 in the country and has suffered almost as many deaths related to COVID-19 as Hubei Province in China, where the Wuhan Flu originated. And yet, Russia—which shares a very long border with China—has only 90 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 with, thus far, a zero mortality rate. What could cause such a wild disparity in diagnoses and, more importantly, death rates?
Here’s what you need to know about your odds of catching the coronavirus.
Luck of the Draw
Outside of Mainland China, Italy is the unlikely second-place finisher in body counts due to COVID-19. Of the 8,700 COVID-19 deaths reported worldwide to date, China had about 3,500, and Italy has over 2,900. How is that even possible?
In a way, it would be realistic (but unfair) to blame China for Italy’s current problems with COVID-19. A couple of decades ago, Italy’s textile industry (largely based in northern Italy) was suffering from failure to compete with the cheaper Chinese textiles to the point that many factories in, for instance, Prato, Italy, were closing their doors.
Ironically, it was the Chinese who brought Prato’s textile factories back to life, hiring locals as well as bringing in thousands of Chinese workers to get the factories back to full production.
According to a New Yorker article published in 2018, the Chinese and the Italians got along well, with both cultures sharing the same entrepreneurial spirit as well as having a strong focus on the importance of family. “[T]hey called one another ‘Uncle’, just like we do,” one Chinese immigrant to Prato told the New Yorker.
There were even daily nonstop flights between Rome and Wenzhou, the coastal Chinese city from whence many of Prato’s Chinese immigrants came, and which is about 500 miles from Wuhan, a place we all know about these days. Italy, it seems, has a much stronger connection to China than outside observers might have suspected. But there’s more to this.
Something else you may not know about Italy: It has one of the world’s oldest populations, with the average age in northern Italy—where about 80% of the country’s COVID-19 deaths have occurred—is about 49 years. The median age in China is 37.
The average age of Italians dying from COVID-19 is 81.
So now we have the means and the opportunity, as it were, for any contagious disease to move rather freely between northern Italy and central China. I would think it goes without saying that had COVID-19 gotten its start in northern Italy, the Chinese would now be suffering from the Prato Flu.
Incidentally, Iran also has strong economic ties with China. Coincidentally, it also has a much higher rate of COVID-19 diagnoses as well as COVID-19 deaths than one might expect.
South Korea also does a significant amount of business with China, and it currently suffers a much larger than expected occurrence of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Be that has it may, COVID-19 needed one thing more—time to gain a solid foothold among the population of northern Italy.
And it got that foothold. Right about the same time COVID-19 was infecting its first victims, all of Italy was experiencing a rather normal influenza outbreak, and so COVID-19—which for many people seems identical to any normal case of the flu—went undetected until after China first admitted the existence of a new virus infecting its citizens in late December 2019.
A couple of weeks later, the new virus was identified, and coincidentally, China reported COVID-19’s first fatality—a 60-year-old man who lived in Wuhan.
So, in case you fell asleep while reading the above, let’s cut to the chase: Northern Italy has a much older population than most of the rest of the world, and that’s what COVID-19 hits the hardest; northern Italy already had the flu when COVID-19 came knocking, so medical professionals had no reason to believe they were seeing anything but the normal bouts of flu; and Chinese immigrants returning to northern Italy from visits to family in mainland China were the perfect vehicle for a such a virus.
Handicapping the Stages of COVID-19
There are approximately 7.5 billion people living on Planet Earth (I’m including the population of the International Space Station, of course). Currently, there are 212,000 diagnosed cases of COVID-19. That means that roughly 1 in 50,000 people worldwide has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Yes, many governments and businesses are taking steps to limit exposure to the disease by closing various enterprises and prohibiting public gatherings, but those steps have not been in force long enough to affect that 1 in 50,000 ratio.
In any case, the death count attributable to COVID-19 is currently around 8,700 people, meaning you have about a one in a million chance of dying of COVID-19. We’re now talking winning the lottery-level odds.
But of course, people win the lottery regularly.
So, your course of action if you don’t want to win the Wuhan Flu lottery is pretty simple: Wash your hand frequently and train yourself not to touch your face with your fingers.
The medical profession assures us that unless you have spent time with someone with COVID-19, you have a low chance of catching the disease yourself. As COVID-19 continues to spread, however, those odds could worsen. Self-quarantining if you are suspicious you may have COVID-19 is a good idea, since while it may not help you, it will certainly lessen the threat of your infecting co-workers and passers-by.
It’s important to remember that while many people who get COVID-19 show few or even no symptoms, the disease is still contagious and can be caught even from people who are unaware that they are sick. One encouraging bit of information is that those with no symptoms seem to be about a third as contagious as those with obvious symptoms.
Incidentally, the climate where you live has a slight effect on your chances of contracting COVID-19. The current medical thought is that COVID-19 does better in moderate climates and does less well in extremes such as deserts or frozen tundras.
But that theory may be erroneous simply because the cultural and political spread of carriers of the SARS-CoV-2 virus just happened to be to more moderate climates—which, by the way, represents the majority of inhabited localities in the world.
So it’s probably not a good idea to trust that a move to Alaska or Saudi Arabia is going to provide you with a climate shield against COVID-19.
Symptoms to Watch For
Surprisingly, most articles about COVID-19 don’t spend much time discussing the symptoms, so let’s review.
According to the CDC and the World Health Organization, the main symptoms of COVID-19 are, unfortunately, virtually identical to those you might experience during a normal bout of the flu: fever, coughing, fatigue, and shortness of breath. These symptoms can occur anytime between two to 14 days after exposure to someone with COVID-19.
Shortness of breath is something of an outlier among flu symptoms; it does occur, but not frequently with normal influenza, so if you have a fever, a cough, and you’re experiencing shortness of breath, it is a good idea to call your doctor and discuss those symptoms.
If You Get COVID-19
Okay, let’s say your best efforts at handwashing and resisting the urge to rub your eyes, mouth, and nose have failed, and you’ve tested positive for COVID-19. Now what?
First of all, don’t panic. The death rate in China, where the Wuhan coronavirus originated and where—until recently—the largest number of people with COVID-19 lived, is only 1.4% overall. Among those in their 80s, however, the fatality rate was three times that number—4.7%.
Naturally, even a one-in-a-hundred chance is not a cheery statistic, but it is far better than some of the predictions of double-digit mortality rates floated in the past few months.
So, even if you’re 50 years of age or older, the outlook isn’t necessarily a death sentence. Still, any serious illness at any age is always a cause for concern. It’s very likely that you’ll require hospitalization—just as you would if you had other versions of influenza or pneumonia at that age.
A very recent report from Imperial College on mitigation and suppression of COVID-19 notes that less than 10% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 have been under the age of 50. People aged 50 through 69 represent about 25% of those hospitalized, and those aged 70 and up represent more than 50% of all COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization.
To say that age is the most important characteristic in determining one’s chances of contracting COVID-19 is almost an understatement. But there are also other considerations.
The Word of the Day: Comorbidity
For the elderly, virtually any viral infection is serious. When they have other health problems—and the elderly often do—the seriousness of the viral infection becomes even worse. These other health problems—called “comorbidities” by the medical profession—can synergize with COVID-19 to decrease your survival chances significantly.
Rivaling the patient’s age as a significant factor in his or her chances of surviving COVID-19 is something medical types like to call “comorbidity”—a fancy word for pre-existing conditions that might increase COVID-19 deadliness. The leading pre-existing conditions exacerbating COVID-19 (according the US Center for Disease Control) are:
Chronic respiratory disease
Other contributors to increased vulnerability that are not included on the CDC’s list:
If you have none of the conditions noted above, and you have not been diagnosed with COVID-19, you have every reason to believe you will survive this pandemic. That is, as long as you also avoid contact with crowds, wash your hands frequently, and of course, don’t start smoking or overeating to compensate for the stress.
The current wisdom concerning the wearing of surgical or even N95 masks is this: If you’re not infected with COVID-19, don’t wear one. Most surgical masks are ineffective for the purposes to which laymen are putting them to. Also, the medical profession—the people who are fighting COVID-19 every hour of every day—have much greater need for those masks.
There’s a corollary to the rule: If you do have COVID-19, then you should wear a mask—to protect others from your illness when you exercise questionable judgment to break your self-quarantine so you can go to the Boy George Reunion Concert.
By the way, more people have caught COVID-19 on a cruise ship than have caught it in Japan. You could look it up. Unlike other Asian and Pacific Rim nations, Japan has few cases of COVID-19 and far fewer deaths than many of its neighbors, thanks—in part—to the fact that for historical reasons, Japan and China aren’t exactly on each other’s Christmas card list.
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