‘Influenza and Covid-19 are like apples and tomatoes’

| Claudio Matera

The column of our student columnist about the down-to-earth mindset in Twente regarding the coronavirus made Claudio Matera, researcher at BMS, raise his eyebrows. 'I want to point out that this sickness is different and more serious than a flu; it’s a sickness that brings hospitals and their staff to their respective limit.'

It has now been around two weeks since my brother has stepped in my parents’ place. He drops a bit of shopping at the door (home delivery is jammed), waves his hand goodbye, and leaves. My parents are 71; my mum is fine, but my dad had a mild heart attack last summer and falls in the category of those at risk if infected with Covid-19. They all live in Varese, an Enschede-like town between Milan and Switzerland. At this point I want to clarify immediately that I have no intention of writing a sentimental, Italian, soap-opera drama here.

I know some people have argued that this is like a flu and that one shouldn’t panic, and I have no intention of writing about the silly races to supermarkets, nor I write about the ridiculous masks you may encounter in the subway in London.

Rather, I want to point out that this sickness is different and more serious than a flu; it’s a sickness that brings hospitals and their staff to their respective limit. To write a column for a university-based medium and base it all on a personal opinion about scientific events without reflecting on the available scientific evidence is like a Sunday sermon with no Bible quotes: out of place. And evidence suggests that influenza and Covid-19 are like apples and tomatoes: two fruits, no more than that.

First virology then statistics. It has been argued that this is like a flu. This is not true: Covid-19 has properties and structure (nomen omen) that distinguishes it from the ‘classic’ flu virus. The differences mean that we do not have the antibodies for it and when the virus finds fertile terrain for its spreading, it may affect the lower portions of our lungs with serious respiratory effects. This last aspect brings us to the second issue: the difficulty that many have to breath with the result that they need to be placed in Intensive Care Units (ICU). It is not my opinion - which would be irrelevant since none of these domains pertains to my field of research, but is a matter of science as this virus often turns out to be more aggressive when it affects the lower portion of lungs (see publications by TheLancet, WHO and, if you speak Italian, the Istituto Superiore di Sanità with the latest statistics, and more publications and data are emerging).

Copyright of this table above goes to ANBI (Associazione Nazionale Biotecnologi Italiani)

This last aspect brings us to numbers. Indeed, here the differences are enormous: the flu simply does not send so many people to the ICU of a hospital, with the result that once hospitals are jammed, it creates further problems if someone with another condition - say, a stroke, also needs an ICU bed. The graph below compares the 2019/2020 flu with the Covid-19 data in Italy updated to the 6th of March, and it compares data starting from the last weeks of 2019 to week 10 of 2020. The table was made by the Italian Association of Microbiologists in an effort to produce readable evidence against those who systematically claim that the present virus is like a flu: the Covid-19 brings more people to hospitals and ICU units, and this alone is the number that is relevant because this shows that this virus affects our healthcare systems and their capacity to deliver healthcare for everyone in an unprecedented manner.

We are the children of Enlightenment, and whilst politicians, journalists, vloggers and bloggers hit us with their opinions let’s be rational and opinionless in our behaviour. Let’s pay attention to our hygiene and that of our surroundings, if we have flu-like symptoms let’s stay home and let’s respect Covid-19: it has brought immense physical, emotional and practical sufferings around the world and if we want to avoid it or beat it we should take it seriously, not shrugging it off. Like the hero of the satirical novel Candide learns, we should beware of masters such as Pangloss or Martin, and make sure that we take care of our garden appropriately.

Claudio Matera, assistant professor at the Department of Public Administration, faculty BMS