Sebastian Piñera, President of Chile, has just told the media the country is counting the Covid-19 patients that die as ‘recovered’, because they cannot infect anyone any longer. He also said that this was an indication of international experts. Well, I have been closely monitoring the daily numbers from the World Health Organization and I suspect that these ‘phenomena’ of falsifying the numbers is widespread and scary. I believe, let me tell you, that this Coronavirus pandemic is probably much worse than it’s been reported. I’m not saying this happens always in bad-faith. Sometimes it is mostly, probably, a question of counting different things as if they are identical. But let me talk to you a little bit about that.
Let’s start with the obvious. Chile, as of today, has a count of 7,528 infected. It counted only 82 deaths and 2367 recovered. How many dead have been counted as recovered? We actually don’t know. How many countries are doing the same? We don’t know. Next, Sweden is notoriously not actively testing its citizens. Only the ones coming to the hospital and actually tested and diagnosed are counted in the statistics – all that die at home or die before being tested are not counted. How many are really dying from the disease in Sweden? We don’t know.
Germany has a particularly low death rate for the level of infections it shows – it is just not coherent with the data from other countries. Many people are advancing ideas online for why this is so. Maybe it has been testing randomly more than others, maybe it has better health care conditions or fewer people with underlying conditions. Or, actually, it’s counting deaths in a different way. People don’t just die from the Coronavirus. They die of pneumonia, of heart disease, of respiratory difficulties. If you don’t count deaths of any infected as a Coronavirus death but as a death from pneumonia, you will be having a lot less Covid-19 deaths. Is this what Germany is doing? We don’t know.
In Italy, doctors and hospital managers have confessed that the deaths are coming in so fast they have stopped counting. This is a dire crisis and we may never know how many actually perished in that country, but I suspect that situation is being duplicated in Spain and maybe even in France.
China has for a long time been unreliable in the data it releases. See the famous case of the Banqiao Dam failure in August 1975. After a strong typhoon 62 river dams collapsed and the waters ran over millions of houses. It was hidden by the authorities for years and when it finally came out, the Chinese Government capped the death toll at 86,000. There are reasons to believe, nowadays, that it was closer to 240,000. It was one of the worse if not the worst natural disasters in history. There are also questions about the numbers of the SARS epidemic in 2002. And it is common knowledge that China’s GDP numbers are mostly bogus. There are three kinds of lies, said Mark Twain once: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics. Today, China’s official death toll for the Covid-19 pandemic is 3,345. In a 1.4 billion people country. When they didn’t even know this was coming. Even if their response was flawless (and that’s doubtful) the numbers are suspicious. And there’s a lockdown – journalists, especially foreign journalists, appear still not to be allowed to travel the country. And they are still reporting around 100 new cases a day, which they attribute to foreigners coming in infected. They have announced that the Russian border is now a particularly dangerous source. They have found 60 infected people coming from Russia in one airplane alone. And Chinese nationals who have gone to Vladivostok are also reportedly coming back infected.
Russia is another suspicious case. Their reporting is also unreliable at best, outright preposterous at worst. The official death toll for the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980’s is still 31 people – when we know that probably hundreds of thousands died as the result of the accident. In the case of Covid-19, they were very slow in getting data released. It seemed they had been spared when everyone around them was suffering. Today, they announce 21,102 people infected and 170 deaths. Somehow, I doubt it.
The most troubling case, though, is the United States of America. Today, the official numbers are 582,594 infected cases with 23,649 deaths. But the disparity of numbers and practices that have been showing all over the country make me think the real scenario is far worse. In New York, the center of the American pandemic, there are reports that the number of dead people who Emergency Services find in their homes has increased ten-fold. Are they Coronavirus victims? We don’t know. But we can assume many will be – what other reason for this increase could there be? So, probably, the death toll from the disease in New York has been underreported. There are also accounts that in Florida, patients that come into the hospitals and are not tested or confirmed before they die are not being counted as Covid-19. And then there are reports of the dire situation on the Retirement Homes all over the rural areas, where people are falling ill and dying profusely – mostly without reliable reports.
As Anthony Fauci, the US director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said, the predictive models of the death tolls and infections are only as good as the data that go into it. And the data collected around the world and in the US is simply a mess. There are clear limits on what can be done: you can only count if you have the testing capacity to do that, and this capacity is irregular across the globe. Many countries are in clear trouble when trying to test, facing shortages of everything from laboratories to reagents to mere swabs. Some economists have been saying that in the US alone you would need systematic testing in the order of millions people a day. Health officials counter that is logistically impossible. Still, most or all of political decisions and appreciations at this point are based on a lot of statistics that seem inaccurate at best. People are just infecting too fast, falling to fast, dying too fast. If you systematically underreport and underestimate the numbers, it’s normal that the models will become more and more optimistic on the final tolls, and politicians start making unreasonable predictions and claims. It’s possible that most of our economies will start opening too soon. It’s possible that lousy responses and management of this crisis will be lauded as brilliant. But worse of all, it’s possible we’ll go down this path again and again and the death toll will be much, much worse. The Spanish Flu record of 50 million dead won’t be reached – but then again, who knows?
Of course, there is a way to overcome this mess – and that is to standardize as much as we can the way we count, and the way we analyze all the data. But that requires political will. And I suspect that will not be present. Manipulation of the information is at best an irresistible temptation. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.