I have previously argued about the unconvincing and unsettling approach of politicians and scientists to the pandemic (here). This time I am looking at the reported numbers around COVID-19 because the evaluation of the severity of the virus and the consequent decisions are data-driven rather than impact-driven. At least this is what is projected in the daily updates citizens receive around the world.
In research we are taught (by, even, the same scientists who advise politicians) that investigating a topic leads to meaningful conclusions if data is valid and reliable; otherwise, the conclusions may paint a totally irrelevant picture to reality. Let’s try to evaluate the data we have on coronavirus.
Valid data means that the figures we use are the right ones to provide an insight to the problem we are investigating. In our case scientist report number of infections, how many people recover, number of deaths, reproduction number (R0) and the like. All these seem very relevant to an epidemic infection.
Reliability of data attempts to address the question of trust to our data. To what extent can we really be certain that the data we use is trustworthy? In my view, this is where we got lost with COVID-19. Of course, in real life, no one can be 100% certain about anything but we can, always, develop a level of confidence and base our actions on evidence.
At the time of writing (21/05/2020), we have around a few million of cases in 213 countries (virusconv.com, 2020). We know this because countries report the cases they have in their territories. In the relevant list, we have USA, Russia, Germany, France, UK, Spain, Italy among the first in the list and, then, countries like Greece, Turkey, Senegal, Bulgaria, Croatia, North Macedonia, Slovakia appear somewhere in the middle and countries from Africa, South America and Asia further down the ranking. We, also, praise the countries in the middle and last group for their ability to manage the threat successfully (at least in the case of Greece).
This achievement would be really remarkable if we forgot that those countries have been repeatedly and for decades criticised about the credibility of their reporting systems. In the case of Greece, Italy, Spain, they have even received again and again bail out funds from the European Union after it was revealed that the national statistics is wrong. But, it appears that in the situation we are into, their statistics (of those and other countries in Africa, Middle East, etc.) is solid.
Let me put it straight; for decades the reporting ability and credibility of the majority of the countries around the world were dubious and unreliable and, now, due to the threat of corona virus, they have in place, suddenly and overnight, a state of the art reporting system. How does this sound to you?
Now, imagine that China was the first to identify the new virus; a country with a regime of unclear procedures, standards and regulations. To be clear; I am not suggesting there is some sort of conspiracy behind the pandemic and the virus. I am only attempting to evaluate the situation based on what we all know.
Then, if we can not really trust this data, what does it mean for the threat we are facing? In my view, two points can be raised: firstly, the numbers may be bigger or smaller and, secondly, regardless of the where the true numbers are, I am convinced that COVID-19 has been with us much longer and before China identified it. People have been infected in the past, some died and most of them recovered. As a consequence, we have been living with it for a good time now and, humanity does survive without the need for any measures of the magnitude we are all experiencing today. Thus, coronavirus may not be as big a threat as has been presented (although it can be a deadly virus).
In short, no one knows what is being reported. The really disturbing point here is that the reporting services which consolidate coronavirus data identify this weakness as well. Here is the legend of the graphs in the virusconv.com website (Fig. 1). The authority that reports the cases (this is not this particular website; they only pull data out from official sources) says that the total cases include confirmed positive cases and may, also, include suspect or probable cases depending on which country reports them. So, the total cases may not be the real infected cases after all 🙄 ❓ .
They know that the whole global data set is not reliable and, yet, people stand in front of nations and use this data to make decisions and advise people how to behave and what to do. I have the feeling that, at this stage, scientists and politicians are fully aware they have been mislead and made decisions that seem unjustifiable when you scrutinise the data. But now it is hard for them to back down after the mess they have created and the negative impact on at least two generations of people.
virusconv.com, 2020, COVID-19 Coronavirus – Update, https://virusncov.com, Accessed [21/05/2020]