Suppose that the coronavirus is indeed, as some sobering estimates say, about ten times as lethal as the flu. In 2017, 55,672 Americans died from influenza and pneumonia. A coronavirus (and related episodes of pneumonia) death toll ten times that would be nearly 557,000, which in 2017 terms would have qualified as the third leading cause of death in the country, behind only heart disease (647,457) and cancer (599,108). But coronavirus fatalities disproportionately occur among people with other underlying conditions — which means some of those 557,000 coronavirus fatalities would be people who would otherwise have died just from one of the other two leading causes of death, or perhaps even more likely, the fourth leading cause of death in 2017, ‘chronic lower respiratory diseases’ (160,201), or from some other cause.
The number that really matters is not the estimated number of deaths from the coronavirus, but the estimated number of deaths above the norm for the population in question. That number might still be dauntingly high, but it will be substantially less than any simple estimate of coronavirus deaths.
There’s no reason to doubt that the coronavirus shifts the actuarial tables in the direction of more deaths, and sooner than they would otherwise occur. But just how much the virus can shift those tables is a question that goes largely unasked. The top-line, context-free estimates of deaths are the ones that grab the headlines.