Ideas

As Covid-19 Will Be Around For A While, We Need To Rethink The Daily Data

Coronavirus graph (representative image)
Snapshot
  • There should be a rethink on how Covid-19 data should be highlighted. Here is a better way to package the daily numbers.

With the Prime Minister making it clear that Covid-19 isn’t going to vanish from our lives anytime in the near future, it is important to recalibrate the media-induced panic over a pandemic that is currently causing very few deaths. In particular, the kind of data being pushed out daily needs to be reformulated for the future where we need to be on our guard but confident in our ability to deal with the disease. Paranoia is no longer needed.

Currently, the government gives us several sets of basic data, and some derivatives therefrom. There is the headline daily cumulative total of the number of Covid-19 positive cases, the number of recoveries, the number of deaths, the number of daily and cumulative tests conducted, and the number of asymptomatic cases detected. Some 80 per cent of those who test positive for Covid-19 are said to display no symptoms or only mild symptoms, according to one estimate.

In future, we will also get district-wise samples of potentially high-risk and low-risk cases at the rate of 800 per district per month. This implies that we will have half a million results of people not currently suspected of being infected by Covid-19. This will be over and above the normal testing of symptomatic cases right now.

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What this will do is to suddenly spike the number of cases — enough to spook the general public and the health authorities. This calls for a rethink on how the data should be highlighted. The following would be a better way to package the daily data.

First, the most important number should be the number of active cases, which is the result of reducing recoveries from total infections so far. This will tell us how many people are currently suffering or undergoing treatment for Covid-19.

Second, the number of deaths — currently at just over 3 per cent per 100 cases — should be highlighted and re-adjusted for estimated cases of undiscovered asymptomatic cases. If four out of five people do not exhibit symptoms, there is a good chance that the total number of Covid-19 cases may be five times the current total of under 75,000.

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This implies that we actually have close to 375,000 cases. But on this base, the death figure of 2,417 would be 0.006 per cent. Far less than one per hundred. This will bring the necessary perspective to the real threat of Covid-19. Yes, it is infectious, and yes, we need to take good precautions, but it is not a mass killer.

Third, the practice of showing recovery rates makes no sense. Recovery rates are a function of two numbers, total infections and recovered cases, but they tell us nothing about the actual mortality threat of Covid-19. We had 74,281 cases as at the end of 12 May, and 24,386 recoveries.

This gives us a 'recovery rate' of 32.8 per cent, which gives the wrong impression that barely a third of those infected are recovering.

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Actually, given the 14-days-plus lag between testing positive for Covid-19, hospitalisation, and final recovery, the recovery rate changes depending on how fast the total number of cases rises.

Assuming a 3 per cent mortality rate, when the total number of infections start slowing down, and finally drops to zero, recovery rates will move towards the 96-98 per cent range, as they have in Kerala. If we also take cases that were never discovered, our recovery rates may be better than 99 per cent.

The recovery rate as currently calculated is a meaningless figure as long as the total number of cases are rising. The mortality rate per 100 cases is what is relevant. The health department could, if it wants to give granular data, give it date-wise, after a lag.

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If, for example, on 12 May we had 3,525 new cases, the recovery rate for 12 May cases should be given some time between 28 and 30 May, when we will have the full recovery data. This will give us a daily time series of actual recovery rates, which will be in the high nineties. This will offer us a truer picture than the current recovery rate which is merely a statistical artefact.

Last, the Health Ministry should give weekly comparative figures on other communicable and non-communicable diseases so that Covid-19 is seen in perspective.

This is not an invitation to forget about the infectious nature of Covid-19 or to pretend that the worst is over, but it is important to not see it as a bigger threat than tuberculosis, diarrhoea, measles, typhoid, cholera, diabetes, heart disease, or influenza.

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As the PM said, “Corona will remain a part of our lives for a long time”. A long-term enemy needs long-term and consistent vigilance not amounting to paranoia. A shift in the way we view the data will help us get to this mindset faster.

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