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We still don’t understand the covid-19 numbers

June 4, 2020

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Credit: Pixabay user Queven

It’s been, what, five months since the early news of Covid-19 spreading? Numbers are at the heart of explaining it all, whether enumerating people infected, deaths, or economic and social impacts.

But despite heaven knows how many thousands of stories out, so many of the numbers are tentative, if not outright rocky. Too many reporters are taking down what they hear and read and not questioning the information. Even with actual experts are the source, it’s vital to step back and add enough context so people recognize what is actually known and what isn’t. ‘

Look at the reported cases and deaths, whether coming from an agency like the World Health Organization or an official public health source within a given country. Too many things are up in the air.

For months, publications had passed along the daily WHO counts. And yet, when I emailed the organization at one point, a spokesperson said that the fatality rate was “crudely calculated” because of so much uncertainty.

That uncertainty came from multiple sources. One was the nature of WHO reporting. The organization depends on numbers it gets from individual countries. There is no independent verification. If a government decides to spin what it admits to, or if reporting methodologies in a nation are flawed, the data will be bad.

And the methodologies are bound to be flawed. For example, there had been limited testing in the U.S. That suggests two things. One, we don’t know the real extent of cases because people, even those who presented likely symptoms, often couldn’t get tested. Increase the number of overall cases, and the fatality rate, which is the number of deaths divided by the number of cases, would drop.

However, it also seems likely that there have been legions of deaths of people who had never been tested and for whom the cause of death would likely have been wrongly attributed. That would increase the number of deaths, and the fatality rate as well. ‘

Those are absolutely basic numbers that we don’t yet know and likely won’t with accuracy for some time.

Then we must recognize that overall national numbers are averages that don’t tell an accurate story. The number of cases and fatality rate in New York City will be significantly different than a smaller city that hasn’t seem to have been heavily infected yet. It’s not enough to quote the national averages, which could be understated or overstated for any more specific region.

To discuss impact on health, the health system, and the labor force, looking at deaths also isn’t enough. Longer-term health effects will have an impact and are only now being revealed. One example, an acquaintance of mine came down with a serious though not obviously critical case of Covid-19. Then the person learned afterward about a heart condition that developed and needed a pacemaker.

We don’t know how likely a new wave of the disease might break out or where and when it would appear. Dependent on where in the country it happened, different industries might be more heavily affected.

We don’t even know the real extent of the unemployment impact, as the surveys, following their usual timetables, have happened too early in months to give an accurate read, given the rapid increase in people losing their jobs.

We all want to be accurate. Unfortunately, when the information is cloudy or doesn’t exist, it’s necessary to be transparent about that fact, even if the process makes a story more complicated to explain.


  • Erik Sherman

    Erik is an independent journalist and author who primarily covers business, economics, finance, technology, politics, and legal/regulatory, while elegantly expressing the complex and often incorporating data analysis.

    View all posts

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