Testing in general reveals infections, it doesn’t create them; COVID-19 isn’t the same as the common cold
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to higher than expected deaths in many countries around the world and places a significant burden on healthcare systems. Many hospitals have experienced insufficient capacity in intensive care units, and some have had to cancel surgeries and turn away patients. COVID-19 testing is an invaluable tool that enables us to detect and isolate infected people, thus helping to reduce the spread of the virus.
Factually inaccurate: COVID-19 isn’t simply the result of testing, but due to an infectious disease that is distinct from the common cold. Simply avoiding COVID-19 testing wouldn’t cause the disease or its effects on people and society to go away.
A meme featuring Glinda the Good Witch from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, captioned with the words “If you stop testing it all goes away and people just have colds like before”, began circulating in late December 2021 on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The meme was shared widely, assisted by shares from individuals such as podcast host James T. Harris and organizations like the Australia One Party. Overall, the meme received more than 18,000 user engagements on Facebook, according to social media analytics tool CrowdTangle.
The claim that COVID-19 testing is to blame for the public health crisis isn’t new. In fact, former U.S. president Donald Trump made this claim in 2020 on Twitter, as reported by CNBC and STAT News. Inaccurate and misleading claims surrounding different types of COVID-19 tests, aimed at questioning public health measures against COVID-19, have also been popular during the pandemic, as these reviews by Health Feedback show here and here.
The gold standard for COVID-19 testing is PCR, which is highly sensitive and specific for the virus SARS-CoV-2, for which the vast majority of positive results are true positives. Therefore, we can conclude that in general, testing reveals infections; it doesn’t create them. The fallacy of the meme quickly becomes apparent if we apply its logic to other tests, such as a pregnancy test: if one doesn’t test for pregnancies, then there will be no pregnancies.
One of the ways that we know there is a public health crisis is simply by observing the material effects on healthcare systems. Healthcare systems in the U.S. and in other parts of the world like Italy and Canada have been heavily strained due to the number of COVID-19 patients requiring hospital care, with hospitals cancelling surgeries and/or turning away patients. We wouldn’t observe such a load placed on healthcare systems if people are “just [having] colds like before”.
Another observation demonstrating that there is a pandemic is the fact that countries have recorded more deaths compared to pre-pandemic years (excess deaths). If COVID-19 was simply the common cold, it wouldn’t explain the unexpectedly higher deaths.
The meme also drew a false parallel between COVID-19 and the common cold; the two aren’t identical. As explained by health experts at Meedan’s Health Desk:
“The common cold is generally not lethal, with some rare exceptions. The flu, which is deadlier than the common cold, killed 0.1% of the people who contracted it in 2019. It is still too early to discern accurate global death estimates for people who have contracted COVID-19, but estimates have ranged from 1% to 25% of all cases, depending on the country. Even conservative COVID-19 death rates (around 1% ) would mean that the novel coronavirus is at least 10 times as deadly as the flu, and significantly more lethal than the common cold.”