BY Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha

“Doctor, I can’t understand why they are making such a to-do about this COVID business. After all, only about two percent of those who contract the virus die, right?” One of my patients said this to me the other day.

I took a deep breath.

My patient is a relatively well-educated and prominent member of Colombo society but his ignorance about this coronavirus frightened me. Unfortunately, he isn’t the only person labouring under the misconception that COVID-19 is simply another illness like the common cold.

The idea that COVID-19 doesn’t need to be taken seriously has permeated the thinking of too many people around the world after leaders such as former US President Donald Trump and current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro perpetuated that myth.

What’s dangerous is if my patient and those who think like him act on the premise that COVID-19 is simply a form of the common cold. It’s possible that they will not only be infected through careless and unprotected association with others but also spread it to those who come into close contact with them.

Let’s analyse the statistics that my patient quoted.

He was right about the number of deaths from COVID-19 being “only a small percentage of the number of those who test positive for coronavirus.”

In the US for example, over 430,000 people have died from COVID-19 at the time of publication. And more than 26 million people have tested positive for the virus, which is 1.8 percent of COVID-19 related deaths. If one looks at worldwide statistics, there have been in excess of 100 million cases and 2.1 million deaths – i.e. a death rate of 2.1 percent.

To fully appreciate these numbers and know how they are calculated, one must understand statistics. It’s important to know that the denominator used to calculate the percentage of deaths is not the number of people who enter hospital with symptoms of the disease. Instead, it’s the number of people who have been tested and found to be carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus in their nose or throat.

Some infected persons will experience symptoms while others may have none. The latter group are asymptomatic carriers since they don’t exhibit any features of the illness.

However, they harbour the virus in their bodies and pass it on to those they come into close contact with. They will spread the dangerous virus through coughing, sneezing and other forms of physical contact such as shaking hands or hugging.

Though asymptomatic carriers aren’t affected by the illness, others who contract the virus from them may not be so lucky – especially if theyhave underlying conditions such as diabetes, old age, cancer or any form of immune weakness. These illnesses will make them vulnerable to the pathogen that invades their bodies and causes adverse effects.

If the virus enters your body and you develop the disease, things can become very serious because it can invade your lungs – causing fever, breathlessness and pneumonia. Of those who contract COVID-19, 80 percent will experience only mild symptoms while a fifth develop severe symptoms and require costly treatment in hospitals – usually, in the ICU.

If you experience any serious symptoms of COVID-19 and require hospitalisation, there’s a very high chance you may face death; and certainly, that’s much higher than “only two percent,” which my patient referred to.