I like Owen Jones, the Guardian journalist. He’s generally close to my political opinions and he’s written three first-class books dissecting aspects of the corrupt and moribund state of British politics and society.
So I was a little surprised when I read in a recent article of his that Covid-19 is ‘at least 10 times deadlier than the flu’. Even to my untrained eye this looked rather on the high side given what I’ve read elsewhere, so I opened the link. It turns out that Owen’s source was a May 14th 2020 article in JAMA Internal Medicine. This was some time ago - quite near the beginning of the pandemic in fact, and it was based on Worldometers data rather than primary research.
I wondered if there was any more recent evidence that Jones might have used. A quick search turned up this December 17th 2020 article in The Lancet comparing flu and Covid deaths in France. There I read that, ‘In-hospital mortality was higher in patients with COVID-19 than in patients with influenza (15,104 [16·9%] of 89,530 vs 2,640 [5·8%] of 45,819), with a relative risk of death of 2·9 (95% CI 2·8–3·0) and an age-standardised mortality ratio of 2·82’.
So in the light of this most recent evidence Covid-19 is three times, rather than ten times, more deadly than flu. I would imagine that Jones did the same as me when he was looking for flu/Covid-19 comparative figures - he carried out an internet search - and I would imagine he came across the Lancet figures, just like I did.
So why did he use seven-month-old research based on secondary data rather than two-week-old research based on primary data?
Could it possibly be that the Lancet figures didn’t fit his narrative, summed up in his article’s title: ‘Giving people false hope about the pandemic isn't “balanced” – it's dangerous’? As dangerous as cherry-picking figures to suit an unexamined position, perhaps. 'The media should not promote disinformation under the guise of debate', says Jones.
In keeping with the polarised state of public debate on most things nowadays we’ve all (me included) got a bit entrenched in our Covid-19 foxholes. Perhaps Jones has too.