Data Story: There Are Inconsistencies In Kerala’s Covid Numbers And That Has Dangerous Implications 

Data Story: There Are Inconsistencies In Kerala’s Covid Numbers And That Has Dangerous Implications 

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Sunday, May 17, 2020 12:14 PM IST
Data Story: There Are Inconsistencies In Kerala’s Covid Numbers And That Has Dangerous Implications Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. 
  • An analysis of district-wise data reveals numerous contradictions and inconsistencies, of both data and policy, in the Kerala government’s approach to tackling the Wuhan Virus.

The Wuhan Virus epidemic had thankfully become dormant in Kerala through the start of May, until an abrupt resurgence registered over 50 cases in the past three days.

Communist Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s instinctive response was to pin this spike on returnees, thereby belaying fears of fresh local cluster formation.

This is precisely the same line as the one Vijayan’s co-ideologues in Beijing are spouting — that the problem at home is solved, and that fresh problems are being brought in from outside.

Unfortunately for Vijayan, unlike his Sinic ideal, the Union of India is a democracy in which numbers can’t be hidden.

As a result, district-wise analysis of his own health department’s data shows, on the contrary, that there are multiple inconsistencies which contradict his Marxist government’s proclamations.

These have grave ramifications on easing of lockdown restrictions, a return to normalcy, public health and the economy.

The methodology adopted for this exercise is straightforward. All information issued by the Kerala health department via its daily health bulletins were tabulated by district in a spreadsheet.

Analyses were carried out thereon.

These were supplemented by national data from a crowd-sourced website, and tallied against Union Ministry of Health data.

Summed up, the data reveals that Vijayan chose to reduce the number of individuals under surveillance exactly at the time when he should have been doing the opposite. This was accompanied by a desultory approach to sample testing rates, which fell over April.

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

The start of the blue line’s dip in the chart above is synchronous with the Tablighi Jamaat cluster revelations in end-March.

The maroon spike at end-April represents the clearing of a sample backlog — a crucial delay of many days after they were collected.

So, if Vijayan is not testing or monitoring adequately, what is the validity of the numbers he is publicizing?

Secondly, his inability to ramp up sample testing capacity over April has left Vijayan without the vital resources to chase the virus.

As a result, he is reduced to the knee-jerk response of hospitalizing symptomatic patients when a case is reported in a district.

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

Note how cases reappear in larger numbers whenever surveillance reduces? This is a function of inadequate testing.

Third, this shortfall in testing capacity means that Vijayan is now unable to satisfactorily screen asymptomatic individuals.

Consequently, a number of carriers could slip through that gaping hole in containment protocols (Readers may be reminded that infected persons not manifesting any symptoms of the disease constitute well over half or three-quarters of all cases reported).

Fourth, it is seen that Vijayan’s Marxist government appears to have fallen back on an extremely odd practice of increasing symptomatic hospitalizations in selected districts, as if in anticipation of cases to come.

This is usually followed by a staggered reporting of a handful of cases. The first inference is that Vijayan is being forced to fall back upon symptomatic hospitalizations in lieu of testing, because he has not enhanced testing capabilities.

The second inference is that foreknowledge might be going unreported until local situations have been ‘managed’.

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(click to enlarge)

A good example is Karargod district where hospitalizations suddenly shot up to near-record levels during a long period when no cases were reported.

Then, and only then, did cases start getting reported again in a staggered, sporadic manner.

Fifth, it is seen that fresh cases appear when Vijayan reduces surveillance in districts. Once again, this is a function of his inability to follow up symptomatic hospitalizations with widespread screening by testing (or vice-versa), because his testing capacity remains insufficient.

An example is Kannur district.

Sixth, the manner in which he has treated Malappuram district vis-à-vis others is a singular policy inconsistency, which is exacerbated by his telling silence on details of cases there.

This raises doubts on data veracity, because of three reasons: first, the total number of symptomatic hospitalizations in Malappuram is far greater than in any other district. Second, the ratio of positive cases to symptomatic hospitalizations in that district stands out as a distinct outlier.

Third, while Vijayan routinely goes into the origins of cases by district, during his daily sunset pressers, he has largely kept mum on cases from Malappuram.

For example, he made it a point to offer clarifications on the 26 cases reported on 14 May, except for the five cases of that day from Malappuram.

This reticence raises serious concerns on the nature of forces at work.

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Seventh, a clear policy inconsistency in response protocols is also seen between Malappuram district and the others.

Where, in Kollam district for example, the report of a solitary case results in symptomatic hospitalization of a dozen-odd individuals, the report of a similar solitary case in Malappuram is followed by the hospitalization of nearly a hundred.

Similarly, a Malappuram-like situation in Pathanamthitta district only elicits the hospitalization of a handful; so too in Idukki, Kottayam, Alappuzha districts and others.

Indeed, in stark contrast, the percentage of symptomatic hospitalizations in Malappuram district, of the total such hospitalizations in the state, has often exceeded a full 20 per cent.

This begs the question: What is the fear in Malappuram which is not there in Kollam or elsewhere?

Eighth, health department data shows that the number of samples tested daily actually fell in the middle of April. In addition, the lethargic rate at which Vijayan built up sample testing capacities is unacceptably sluggish.

Readers may recall that Kerala was at the top of the testing list when the epidemic burst in end-March/early-April (227 tests per million).

From there, it has been overtaken by most other large states, in a far shorter time period.

In fact, using that 227 figure as a benchmark, one might even say that Vijayan has failed the ‘Kerala Model’ test.

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

In conclusion, we see that there are numerous contradictions and inconsistencies of both data and policy, in Pinarayi Vijayan’s approach to tackling the Wuhan Virus.

He is at a stage when he cannot confidently claim that he has flattened the curve. Instead, data analysis reveals a fairly knee-jerk, responsive approach, strongly hampered by a lack of testing capacity, with the risk of fresh clusters emerging still undiminished.

This risk is heightened by his coy reticence towards case details of Malappuram district, for reasons unknown, where anomalies and outliers remain intriguingly unexplained.

Thus, it must be asked: why has Vijayan been so slothful in increasing testing capacity? Is it due to political ineptness, administrative inefficiency, or electoral sensitivities?

How can Vijayan claim that he is successfully containing the epidemic when he lacks the necessary tools to see containment efforts through?

How can he say that all clusters have been satisfactorily mapped when he is not testing enough?

How can he chase the virus when he can’t? Where are the new clusters in Malappuram emerging from?

The policy, public health and socio-economic implications of such ineptness, along with further inconsistencies, will be addressed in a forthcoming piece.

Until then, a bottom line: If this is the risky, so-called ‘Kerala Model’ which Pinarayi Vijayan wants to inflict upon his state, and showcase globally, then we are probably better off without it.

Note: All national data taken from All Kerala data from Kerala State daily health bulletins.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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