Why context matters on coronavirus crisis

Mike Stewart/AP
Shoppers wait to check out at a large warehouse retailer March 12, 2020, in Kennesaw, Georgia. Amid the fear, quarantines, and stockpiling, it is easy to overlook that more than 60,000 people have recovered from the coronavirus.

Unlike other outbreaks in modern times, the coronavirus has touched – and in some cases overturned – lives thousands of miles away from where it originated in Wuhan, China. In the U.S., school systems have closed or gone online, everything from Disney World to Broadway to the NBA is shut down, and companies are mandating employees work from home. As testing increases, the number of cases is expected to surge. Italy went on lockdown, the largest peacetime restriction of movement in history. But amid the unprecedented containment efforts, it’s easy to forget that the coronavirus itself – while not fully understood at this early stage – is not as pernicious as other challenges the globe has faced.

That is not to say the world should carry on as normal. “Flatten the curve” is the new mantra from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as a strategy that could ultimately prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed. Government officials have urged prudence, not panic, but too often media reports don’t equip readers with the context needed to stay calm. It has gotten more complicated as the crisis has been politicized, especially in the U.S., where President Donald Trump was under heavy criticism for downplaying COVID-19 early on. On Friday afternoon, he declared a national emergency, giving states access to $50 billion in aid, among other measures including expanded testing.

But just reporting on the number of cases can make it hard to remember that scientists say more people are mild or asymptomatic than not, and many more recover than the focus on the death toll would indicate. The measures being taken by society, as observers have pointed out, can be seen as a collective way of caring for the most vulnerable people.


Data compiled by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, Imperial College London

Sara Miller Llana, Karen Norris/Staff

Why We Wrote This

Government officials have urged prudence, not panic, but too often media reports don’t equip readers with the context needed to stay calm.

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