Media literacy, numeracy, and COVID-19

One of the courses that I teach in regular rotation is Introduction to Media and Society, which is intended to serve as a primer of the media industry and all that it entails for both majors and non-majors alike. One of the foci is the development of a strong sense of media literacy, generally defined as the ability to critically evaluate messages distributed by media channels, including their sources. It’s a skillset that is woefully underdeveloped in Americans as a whole, largely because we basically don’t teach it before high school (and usually not even then), unlike other countries.

But more important than media literacy is basic literacy, which is essentially a prerequisite–and we do pretty well in that regard. But when it comes to numeracy–that is, the ability to use numbers and basic mathematical skills to solve everyday problems–Americans are horrifically behind the curve.

Average PIAAC numeracy scores worldwide (2012)
Mamedova, S., Sparks, D., & Hoyer, K. M. (2017). Stats in brief: Adult education attainment and assessment scores: A cross-national comparison. National Center for Education Statistics.

This is problematic for a number of reasons, but one of the more distressing ones is directly related to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and widespread confusion surrounding its mortality rate. A media literate person might easily realize that President Trump’s early attempts to downplay the threat by comparing it to the seasonal flu were, in whole or in part, almost certainly politically motivated, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

But let’s say that you reject this claim and argue instead that perhaps Trump didn’t really know, or perhaps he was using his statements as a way to soothe public anxieties. While I would disagree, I also can’t disprove either of those things.

One thing that can’t be argued with, however: Trump was not acknowledging the “newness” of the virus, which was a crucial oversight. This coronavirus is called “novel” because it is unlike any other coronavirus[1] we have encountered before; this means that no one on Planet Earth had immunity when it emerged from a bat cave. When you have no immunity to something, and there are no treatments available for that something, the possibility that you (a) contract that something and subsequently (b) die from that something are little more than rolls of the dice.

Even if someone had the media literacy skills to make these realizations, that same person could easily lack the numeracy skills to continue running this train of thought to figure out (from a mathematical standpoint) why the virus posed a very serious threat, even if it does turn out to have a low mortality rate.

It would require a media literate person to do a little digging to figure out that we aren’t really sure about what the COVID-19 death rate truly is, in large part because of wildly uneven testing, but also because countries differ significantly in terms of how they do these counts, not to mention their different demographic compositions. This is why some countries have mortality rates that have been calculated to be as high as nearly 15% (Belgium?!), while others are as low as 2.2% (South Korea) at this writing. Widespread testing is really the only way to figure it out, so as time passes, we’ll see a more stable estimate emerge.

For the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s just go with the 2.2% figure from South Korea (which, by the way, is significantly larger than the American 0.1% mortality rate from influenza, no matter how you slice it).

In the absolute-worst-case scenario, if every person on the planet inevitably contracts the virus, how many would die? Current estimates put the population of the planet at approximately 7.8 billion; written out, for those of you that might want to follow along with a calculator (or, god forbid, a pencil and paper), that’s 7,800,000,000. Simple arithmetic is all we need here:

So in this everyone-infected, worst-case scenario, we could expect 171.6 million people to die. This would be beyond catastrophic, to say the least; the upside, however, is that of the remaining folks, some degree of immunity would emerge (though we still don’t know how long that immunity would last from either natural exposure and recovery, or from a vaccine), and they would develop antibodies.

Let’s say, again, just for the sake of this simple numeracy argument, that another wave of the virus shows up, maybe a year later. Let’s say that there’s no vaccine yet, but that 70% (an arbitrary number I just randomly picked) of all of the survivors still have SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in their system that will fight it off successfully[2]. This is because we have to consider the range of immune responses–most healthy people will successfully fight off reinfection, while others, particularly those who are already unwell or otherwise at higher risk, might have antibodies but are too sick overall to fight off reinfection.

If the virus hasn’t mutated or changed in any significant way, we start with the assumption that its mortality rate is still 2.2%, based on the previous “wave.” The difference this time is that we now have a much, much smaller pool of people who are at risk–the 30% who, for whatever reason, lack sufficient immunity to fight it off, with the immune “protected.” So we calculate how many members of our recently-reduced global population (let’s round it to 7.63 billion) remain at risk:

2.289 billion remain at risk–still a huge, huge number. But remember, this will be our second brush with this disease, and not everyone “at risk” will die. That initial 2.2% death rate, since it’ll be the only thing we have to go on, is what one would expect to see again (assuming no treatments or interventions have been developed). Now, however, we’re talking about 2.2% of 30% of the global population:

50 million people die in this second wave, compared to 171.6 million in the first wave–a reduction of about 70% (interesting that 70% = 100% – 30%, isn’t it?)… and the only thing that changed is that some degree of immunity existed.

These numbers are arbitrary, to be sure, and also quite grim, but my larger point is that the “novelty” of this coronavirus–the fact that when the outbreak started, no one existed who had immunnity–is what makes it so deadly, even with a relatively “low” mortality rate of 2.2%. If that death rate holds, and the virus reemerges, we can expect far, far less people to die, simply because the “pool” of vulnerable individuals will have been greatly reduced.

The very good news, at least for the time being, is that it doesn’t appear this will turn out to be the case at all. Let’s hope we are able to figure out how to move forward together sooner rather than later–and once this threat has been defanged, let’s start a serious conversation about how we can bolster both media literacy and numeracy. We would all benefit.

[1] The name “coronavirus” comes from the shape of the virus when examined under a high-powered microscope–it looks like a little kid’s drawing of a sun, which is to say a circle (sphere) with rays (the “corona”) radiating outward.

[2] Unfortunately, having antibodies in your system isn’t always enough to fight off an illness; they are just one part of the incredibly complex immune response. This is why we always talk about “at-risk” populations whose immune systems may simply be too weak to save them.