Pandemic Timeline

COVID-19 vs. The Flu: The Facts

COVID-19 vs. The Flu: The Facts

Trump has persistently minimized the seriousness of COVID-19 by falsely comparing it to the seasonal flu. Initially, he used the tactic to downplay the virus as it threatened the stock market. His denial and obfuscation squandered precious time, worsened the crisis, and cost lives.

Now that Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic has left 40 million workers unemployed, he is recirculating the lie. Trying to revive his re-election narrative featuring a strong economy, Trump is urging people to return to work and resume economic activity, regardless of the health danger to them and others. 

COVID-19 vs. Seasonal Flu: The Facts

COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, meaning that it is new to humans. So unlike seasonal flus to which at least some people have been exposed previously, COVID-19 is infecting people for the first time. And the speed and manner of transmission make it far more contagious than the flu. Likewise, without a vaccine, there’s no readily available vehicle for providing COVID-19 herd immunity. Those are among the reasons COVID-19 became a global pandemic.

Because COVID-19 is new to humans, more people with it get sicker than with the seasonal flu. That means more hospitalizations, more demand for personal protective medical equipment, increased utilization of intensive care beds, and longer in-patient stays. Those are among the reasons COVID-19 became a global health crisis.

Finally, COVID-19 is somewhere between six and 17 times deadlier to the general population than the seasonal flu. That is why quick and decisive action became crucial to contain the virus.

Trump’s Lie is Born 

Early January: In the first of more than a dozen classified briefings through February, the President’s Daily Brief of Intelligence Matters warns Trump about the dire health and economic dangers that the virus poses. 

Jan. 18: After trying to reach Trump for weeks, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar notifies him personally that the virus is a serious threat.

Jan. 29: In a memo to the National Security Council that circulates inside the West Wing, Trump’s top trade adviser, Peter Navarro, warns, “It is unlikely the introduction of the coronavirus population in significant numbers will mimic a ‘seasonal flu’ event with relatively low contagion and mortality rates.…The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on US soil. This lack of protection elevates the risk of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.”

Feb. 23: In another memo circulating inside the West Wing, Navarro warns of the “increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1-2 million souls.”

Feb. 25: Nancy Messonnier, a senior official at the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, tells reporters that COVID-19 is likely to spread within US communities and that disruptions to daily life could be “severe.” Returning from a trip to India, Trump calls Azar to complain that Messonnier is scaring the stock markets and threatens to oust her.

Feb. 26-May 6: Trump continues to downplay the COVID-19 threat. 

Mar. 9: As global stock markets plunge, Trump tweets: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

Mar. 11: Testifying before Congress, Dr. Fauci says, “I mean people always say, ‘Well, the flu does this, the flu does that.’ The flu has a mortality rate of 0.1%. [COVID-19] has a mortality rate of 10 times that. That’s the reason I want to emphasize we have to stay ahead of the game in preventing this.”

Mar. 12: By the close of trading in the US, the S&P 500 has dropped 9.5 percent — its worst single-day drop since “Black Monday” in 1987 — and is down more than 26 percent from its all-time high on February 19, 2020.

Mar. 16: Trump recommends that for the next 15 days Americans avoid gathering in groups greater than 10, work from home, avoid unnecessary shopping trips and refrain from eating in restaurants.

Also Mar. 16: The White House COVID-19 task force receives results from a new study by the Imperial College of London projecting that the US government’s continuing failure to act swiftly and aggressively could result in 2 million American deaths. 

Mar. 24: “We average 36,000 people,” Trump says of seasonal flu mortality. “Death, death. I’m not talking about cases. I’m talking about death. 36,000 deaths a year…But we’ve never closed down the country for the flu.” 

At this point, limited US testing capability has led to undercounting COVID-19 infections and deaths. Even so, the country has almost 60,000 confirmed cases that have already resulted in 725 deaths. Every day, more than 10,000 Americans test positive for the virus and the reported number of infections is increasing. 

Trump’s Lie is Exposed: Nowhere to Hide the Bodies 

Apr. 6: The US death toll from COVID-19 exceeds 10,000. Trump’s comparison of COVID-19 with the flu does not match the experience of medical professionals on the front lines or the increasing death totals. Unlike even the worst flu seasons, COVID-19 taxes the limits of America’s medical system, and deaths from the virus overburden funeral homes and morgues.

Apr. 11: The US death toll from COVID-19 exceeds 20,000. 

Apr. 16: The US death toll from COVID-19 exceeds 30,000. 

Apr. 21: The US death toll from COVID-19 exceeds 40,000.

Apr. 27: The US death toll from COVID-19 exceeds 50,000. 

May 2: The US death toll from COVID-19 exceeds 60,000.

May 5: The US death toll from COVID-19 exceeds 65,000. Trump pushes governors to reopen their states, even though most have failed to meet his own guidelines for reopening safely. And he pushes Americans to sacrifice themselves to his cause.

At an event in Phoenix, Arizona, Trump says, “I’m viewing our great citizens of this country, to a certain extent and to a large extent, as warriors. They’re warriors. We can’t keep our country closed. We have to open our country.…Well, now it’s time to open it up. And you know what? The people of our country are warriors.”

May 6: The US death toll from COVID-19 exceeds 67,000. When a reporter observes that loosening restrictions to reopen the economy will lead to more infections and deaths, Trump says, “We have to be warriors. We can’t keep our country closed down for years. And we have to do something.” Then he adds, “Because, you know, this virus is going to disappear. It’s a question of when.” 

Trump’s Lie Returns: “Fight Through It”

May 8: The US death toll from COVID-19 approaches 72,000. Trump says, “You know, there are some viruses and flus that came, and they went for a vaccine, they never found the vaccine, and they’ve disappeared. They’ve never shown up again. They got — they die too, like everything else. They die too.” 

May 13: The US death toll from COVID-19 exceeds 78,000 in only 10 weeks. That’s more than double the average total during a typical six-month flu season. Predicting additional deaths as states reopen, the White House revises its earlier estimate upward to project more than 147,000 total deaths by early August. 

May 15: The US death toll from COVID-19 exceeds 81,000. Asked about reopening the economy without a vaccine, Trump says, “And I just want to make something clear. It’s very important: Vaccine or no vaccine, we’re back. And we’re starting the process. And in many cases, they don’t have vaccines, and a virus or a flu comes, and you fight through it.” 

May 21: Epidemiologists at Columbia University estimate that if Trump had acted to mitigate the spread of the virus just one week earlier — on Mar. 9 instead of Mar. 16 — he would have saved at least 36,000 lives by May 3. If he had acted two weeks earlier — on Mar. 2 — he would have saved more than 54,000 lives. But Trump says that if a second wave of COVID-19 hits the US, “We’re not going to close the country.” 

Trump wants COVID-19 victims to “fight through it” as they would the flu. He calls them “warriors,” but they are actually casualties of his re-election campaign. Some will become more data points in the ultimate metric of ongoing presidential failure:

The US has only four percent of the world’s population but more than 28 percent of COVID-19 deaths — so far.






Read all installments of Steven Harper’s Pandemic Timeline.


Steven Harper

Steven J. Harper launched his acclaimed Trump-Russia Timeline on and it now appears regularly on Dan Rather’s News & Guts and Just Security, where it first appeared in December 2018. Harper is a lawyer who teaches at Northwestern University Law School, and the author of several books, including The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis and Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story (a Chicago Tribune “Best Book of the Year”). Follow him at stevenjharper1