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Frequently over the last six months I’ve seen people write the following pronouncement about COVID-19: “It’s not the flu!”

They are right, of course.

COVID-19 can be a vicious disease in a number of ways in which influenza is not. For example, COVID-19 can cause blood clotting issues in severe cases. The clotting can manifest itself in deep vein thrombosis or in tiny clots that block small blood vessels in the lungs, contributing to respiratory failure. The virus also can permanently damage the heart muscle, and cause long term damage to other organs such as the kidneys and the brain. Again, it can be a vicious disease in ways that the flu isn’t.

But when people say “It’s not the flu!” they are really missing the point that I think is being made when other people compare COVID-19 to the flu. People aren’t comparing the nature of the two diseases in any medical or scientific way. Whether they explicitly say it or not, what they are driving at is risk assessment. It’s something we all do in virtually every area of life, usually without much thought.

Influenza is something of a gold standard in terms of risk assessment with respect to infectious disease. The reasons for that are obvious: We are quite familiar with influenza. We know its pandemic history and its mortality history. When people make comparisons between COVID-19 and the flu, a lot of them aren’t seeing a considerable difference (so far, at least) between the two in that regard. But they see a big difference in our response to COVID-19, knowing that our response to the flu hasn’t involved business closings, quarantines, and the like for the past century– not even in the case of an outbreak such as the one in 1968 which took the lives of 100,000 Americans.

Of course it’s not the flu. But relative to risk assessment in connection with public policy, perhaps it should be considered more like it.

This is Brian Myers with your Caffeinated Thought of the Week.

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