There are a lot of things in life that are similar. Some are indeed quite similar, to the point of being almost indistinguishable from each other. Skyscrapers, for instance, are all massive, multi-storied buildings that from a distance might seem exactly the same. Sixty stories, after all, isn’t that much different from 55 stories, and only Superman might notice the difference as he leapt over both “tall buildings in a single bound.”
Other things might enjoy a superficial similarity, with the differences being revealed only after close examination. This holds true with things like corral snakes, which bear a striking resemblance to certain other snakes. If the old saying is to be believed, "Red'n Yellow Deadly Fellow, Red'n Black Friend of Jack,” then a mistake of assuming “similar” is equal to “same” could prove quite deadly. Conversely, though, confusing anything made of tofu with the same dish of meat is merely disappointing and perhaps vaguely disgusting — no, I do not have anything against vegetarians. I simply require honesty from my food, and I actually like broccoli.
The problem with this is that people (including me) look at something and compare it to something else – always. It is one of those mental shortcuts we have discussed, and it is one way we qualify the world around us. It even works fairly well for the most part. With few exceptions, if it has feathers it is some sort of bird and might fly. But on the other hand, if it has scales then it is most likely some type of reptile and is equally likely to remain on the ground. If it has fangs (or carries a knife and fork) it usually eats meat, and so on. All in all, comparison is a good rule of thumb.
But unfortunately, there are exceptions to every rule; and like any rule, if we follow it blindly without questioning it, eventually it will get us into trouble. Which brings us somewhat belatedly to apples and turnips. They share certain downright eerie similarities when you get down to it. They are roughly the same shape, and once peeled they resemble each other in color as well. Were you to slice them and lay them next to each other on a plate, they would appear virtually identical. Pick a slice of each off the plate and they will continue to be difficult to distinguish. And though the two have a different scent, neither is what you would call overpowering. No, the strong scent we associate with apples such as in apple pie, apple cider, etc. is usually the scent of some added spice like cinnamon.
Unless we are very careful, it requires actually biting into them to determine whether we are holding fruit or vegetable, sweet or … not sweet. We might be able to pull of the identification before the first crunch, but the potential for error is there, especially if we are distracted or simply in a hurry and not paying much attention. And it is at that point that, whichever we intended to chomp, we realize that apples and turnips are not, in fact, anything alike. And it doesn’t matter which one you wanted if you chose the wrong one. I personally like both – but I always want to know what I am eating. Some people, on the other hand, might not.
Which is, of course, the problem we are having during the COVID-19 pandemic. We think or want it to be something else, something we already know. It is similar in many ways and reacts in many ways as other viruses we have encountered in the past. People have survived it as other people have survived other viruses for centuries. But many people have died from it as well; and unlike in years past, we don’t really know why one person dies from it and another person shrugs it off. There have even been people who have contracted it and gotten over it while remaining oblivious to ever being sick.
Comparing COVID-19 to influenza is like comparing apples to turnips; with the obvious exception of either of them would be much worse than simple surprise. We have to stop substituting conjecture for fact simply because it makes us less afraid. And, for the record, saying COVID-19 is just like the flu is like saying a serial killer is just a murderer. Either one is deadly, but in the game of survival, volume most definitely counts.