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The Odds, in Perspective

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Gerry Broom

We Americans gamble every day. Risk taking (gambling if you will) is part and parcel of our culture. Consider the slang expressions we use that are drawn from poker. A guy who can’t be trusted is sometimes called a “four flusher.” Norwegian farmers say, “You betcha,” which is Minnesotan for "you bet". Or, when something looks like a sure thing, “You can bet the farm.”


In truth, we take risks every morning when we crawl out from under the covers.  

One of the biggest problems with the daily reports coming from our health experts concerning the Wuhan Flu numbers is that they fail to put those numbers into perspective. Comedian Henny Youngman, when he was asked how his wife was, famously said, “compared to what?”

It’s time to compare some of the odds.

The odds of winning a Pick Six Lottery are 1 in 13.9 million. Americans still line up to buy tickets, nonetheless. So you’re saying there’s a chance. 

Your chances of being struck by a bolt of lightning are 1 in 700,000 – in a given year. During your lifetime those odds decline to 1 in 3,000. In other words, you should be buying lightning bolt insurance instead of lottery tickets. The odds are almost 20 times better. 

Did you know that more Americans are killed by cows every year than by sharks? So, stay on the beach and out of the pasture!

According to the CDC, 1 in 6 Americans gets food poisoning every year, and 3000 die. Worldwide that number is 420,000. Yet our appetite for raw fish and seafood is growing. 

CNN did a story a few years ago claiming that Americans are more likely to die in their bathtub than to be killed in a terrorist attack. Considering the source, several folks decided to dig into the numbers. In reality, it depends on how many terrorist attacks we endure in a given year. The Seattle Times reported that, on average, one American dies every day while soaking in the tub. The Wall Street Journal added that the number is much higher in Japan. It may have something to do with the strength and quantity of Sake consumed.


On average, 7,700 Americans are killed each year by falling trees. Deer kill about 120 of us and another 58 die from bee, wasp and hornet strings. It’s a dangerous world out there, especially in the forests. 

It now appears that this virus which originated in Wuhan, China will be at least three times more lethal than an average influenza season. It is nasty indeed. But, even this lethality needs to be put into perspective. The death rate is heavily weighted toward individuals over 75 and among those who have other serious health conditions. We are learning more every day. Here in Minnesota, over 80 percent of the deaths reported have occurred in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. For those under 65 and in otherwise good health, the death rate may well be similar to other influenza outbreaks. 

Scraping off the veneer, CDC statistics help to put all of this in perspective:

“The 2017 crude death rate, according to CDC, for the entire U.S. population (325 million) was 8.65 per thousand (yielding a probability of dying in any one year of 0.87%). This is calculated from a total of 2,813,000 deaths from all causes. Even if total Covid-19 deaths were to rise to 120,000 for the entire year, the crude death rate for the entire population would rise to only 0.9%," RealClearMarkets reported


Assuming 120,000 (even 150,000) deaths from this virus, we only move the overall crude death rate needle a small fraction. Again, sadly those deaths are heavily concentrated among the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. 

If you are under 60 and in otherwise good health, you are almost as likely to have your life cut short by a bolt of lightning than you are to have it ended by the Wuhan Flu. Yes, we need to do a better job of protecting the vulnerable. 

For everyone else, it’s time to assume a little risk, get off the couch and back to work!

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