06 March 2020

The problem with how COVID-19 risk is being discussed

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There are 24 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in my county, and I’ll admit it: I’m very worried about the outbreak. Call me crazy as I sit in my apartment with mountains of supplies and food that could easily get me through June, but I’m part of the group largely dismissed by mainstream media. I’m immunocompromised and have underlying chronic health conditions. 

Article after article says something along the lines of “most COVID-19 illness is mild, only those over the age of 70 or who are immunocompromised or have existing health conditions, such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease, are likely to experience serious illness.” They then go on to say that most people with mild conditions will recover, so people just need to stay calm and wash their hands. Aside from that sole line, the high-risk group has no other mention in the article.
If you’re in the majority group and are indeed at lower risk, I’m glad COVID-19 may not be as threatening to you. But here’s the thing: you likely have parents, grandparents, friends, colleagues and maybe even children who read the exact same statement from the other side. In fact, according to a Department of Health and Human Services analysis, over 50 million non-elderly Americans have some type of pre-existing health condition.

Facts are facts, and believe me, I want the facts. So what’s wrong with saying those groups are at a greater risk? Absolutely nothing - what’s wrong is the insensitive tone they come across with when they give the fact a quick nod and devote the remainder of the article to the people who don’t need to worry, and that saying ‘only’ the “the elderly, immunocompromised and unhealthy” belittles the value of this group. Comparing the average low-risk American to the high-risk group to help reassure them that at least their personal odds are better than some is in poor taste.

Sure, they’re writing towards mass America. But “the elderly, immunocompromised and unhealthy” is no small group, and the people in this group deserve better. While at a bare minimum an emphatic tone would be appreciated, the articles could share what precautions low risk individuals could take to protect those who are at higher risk. Their “mild” case could be life-threatening to someone else who contracts it from them, and it’s important they’re aware of that and how to minimize spread. Current articles make little sense: they focus on reassuring the people at lowest risk and exclude the high-risk group who needs it most. And it’s not just the high-risk group this matters for: it’s their children, grandchildren, parents and caretakers, among others.

The truth is, you have no idea who might be in this high-risk group, or who has loved ones that are in this high-risk group. Just the other day I was told I was taking excessive precautions and I’d be fine because I’m in my late-20s and look healthy (that’s exactly what invisible illness is!). And if you’re fortunate enough to be low-risk, let me tell you, it doesn’t feel great seeing the mortality rate for your condition five times higher than the average American, based on the limited data available from the Chinese Center for Disease Control & Prevention. I should also add the concern isn’t just about getting COVID-19; it’s about COVID-19 putting such a strain on the health system that individuals with chronic health conditions may not have access to the physicians, medications and treatments they need.

So all in all: please consider how you’re coming across when you talk about COVID-19. If you’re able to go about your day-to-day life unaffected, I’m glad you’re in good health and feeling little disruption. But there is nothing wrong with preparedness or being overly cautious. Life is precious, and I’ll happily work, eat and hang at home to reduce my risk and the anxiety stemming from the staggering fatality figures. 


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