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Maddening Numbers

The way in which the media and policymakers are using the numbers on coronavirus approaches insanity. Most of the numbers published are about as credible as Trump’s estimates of the size of his inaugural crowd. Absolutely no one with any expertise believes that China has only 80,000 cases o...


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Maddening Numbers

Monday March 02, 2020

The way in which the media and policymakers are using the numbers on coronavirus approaches insanity. Most of the numbers published are about as credible as Trump’s estimates of the size of his inaugural crowd. Absolutely no one with any expertise believes that China has only 80,000 cases of the disease. The number could be off by a factor of ten or a factor of 100. And yet the media dutifully reports the daily increments, which also could be off by a factor of 100. I doubt that the reporters writing about the disease believe the numbers, but that hasn’t stopped them from writing a flood of stories about how China has gotten control of the outbreak. And, in turn, we see a bunch of stories about how China is to be applauded for its methods in containing the outbreak.

We also don’t know how many people have died from the disease in China because there’s a mountain of evidence that many coronavirus deaths are not reported as such. So, we don’t know the numerator or the denominator for calculating the mortality rate, at least in China. 

Similarly, we don’t know whether Iran had a few hundred cases last week, or 23,000 as reported by the BBC for the same period. The numbers are probably more honest coming out of South Korea and Italy, but these countries simply don’t know how many infected people are circulating because many are not being tested, and test results lag by a week or more.

Does anyone really believe that if Singapore has 106 cases (and the country has set the standard for diligence on the disease), that surrounding Malaysia, with nearly six times the population, has only 29 cases, or that nearby Indonesia, with nearly 50 times the population, has none? India has roughly the same population as China, and a 2000 mile border with the county, but is reporting 5 cases of coronavirus!

I recognize that it’s always a problem finding credible numbers for casualties as a story unfolds, whether the catastrophe be a hurricane, tsunami or an earthquake, but these numbers usually converge after a week or so (though it took Puerto Rico many months to adjust its absurdly low calculation of deaths from Maria and Irma). With coronavirus, it’s been months since the disease emerged, and also more than a month since Lancet, medical journals, institutions, and epidemiologists challenged the numbers coming out of China; and yet the media still reports China’s official reports down to the last digit, giving an utterly unwarranted patina of authenticity and precision to what is most likely a number massaged by a political committee.

I also understand that news outlets also feel obligated to report some number. What’s to be done? It’s a complicated problem, because some nations do try to responsibly report numbers, while others may alter what’s published as politics interferes. The solution may be the same that cognitive scientist George Lakoff proposed for dealing with Trump’s lies – surround each dubious or untrue statement with a “truth sandwich.”  With regard to China, it might be a parenthesis following any such number; e.g., “… China reported 209 new cases on Thursday, a drop of 27 new cases from the previous day (official numbers reported by China should be treated with skepticism as they are not used in epidemiological modelling by many institutions dealing with the coronavirus)…” This is similar to what some economic commentators do with China’s official numbers on the country’s economic growth.

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely, given constraints on space that most publications and newscasts have to live with. What can and should happen, however, is that journalists, pundits, and news commentators cease drawing conclusions from China’s numbers (and those of a few other countries) about whether the disease is contained, and what works in halting the spread of the virus.  

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Short Take

A Glimmer of Hope in the Coronavirus News?

I’m usually the most apocalyptic guy in the room, but, maybe, there’s a glimmer of hope in the latest news on the coronavirus. If it’s been circulating in Washington state for several weeks, it’s probably also been circulating in a few other states for weeks as well. And if there hasn’t been a big spike in visits to emergency rooms with respiratory ailments (and I have not read about such), it may well be that the virus is already widely spread in the U.S., but not hitting Americans as hard as it has populations elsewhere. If this turns out to be the case, the difference might be that there are far fewer smokers in the U.S. than in China, South Korea, Japan and Italy, and that the air is far cleaner in American cities than in China’s. 

We’ll find out in the next few weeks whether Americans are better able to withstand the disease. There remain major unknowns about coronavirus; nor do we know how hard the virus will hit the elderly and infirm. Still, this latest news could be a positive. 

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