Tuesday, July 16, 2024
 
 

Could bad data be to blame for high coronavirus death toll

EPA-EFE/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
A health worker displays a vial and sterile swab applicator used to conduct tests on motorists for coronavirus at a health facility in Rome, April 2, 2020.

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European countries saw some of the highest death told for coronavirus over the last month. Deaths in Italy have surpassed those in China many times over and other countries have much higher death tolls per capita than China’s official 3,300 figure as of March 31. This has left many questions about where the policies went wrong and has also led to widespread lockdowns as governments tell citizens that they must stay home to protect themselves and others.

Since the outbreak began, the media has speculated that China has not been forthcoming with all the information about the outbreak. Some have surmised that cases were known earlier or that human-to-human transmission was known for days or weeks while the World Health Organization assured people through as late as January 14 that there was no transmission.

In addition, there are questions about how deadly the virus is, from critics who argued it was like the flu, to those that have asserted death tolls in the millions could result.

None of these questions can be answered during the pandemic unless the data presented for studies are accurate. Different studies at the Imperial College or Lancet have looked at different aspects of what is known. However, if some of the data about death tolls in China were to be wrong then the models about “flattening the curve” and the measures necessary would also be wrong.

Articles from March 30 focused on the number of urns in Wuhan amid speculation the death toll was much higher than several thousand. “Wuhan COVID-19 death toll may be in the tens of thousands, data on crematoriums show,” according to reports.

Initial responses to the virus in the West, including in Europe, the US, and Australia, relied on data from the WHO and also suggestions about “social distancing” and school closures. Lockdowns were generally not the answer. China didn’t lockdown the whole country and neither did South Korea or Singapore. In Singapore and South Korea, the efficient and effective response is credited to preparation due to previous diseases, as well as widespread obedience of social distancing measures and rapid testing and tracing of cases.

What we do know is that the WHO-China team that looked at the outbreak in February concluded on February 25 that the rapidly escalating outbreak had plateaued and “come down faster than previously expected.” This filled Western policymakers with hope as they read publications such as The New York Times and repeated the claim that China had declared war on the virus and “rapidly suppressed” it, according to claims on March 4. US

President Donald Trump praised China in February based on the Wuhan and WHO data. However, the virus was already spreading to hundreds in Iran and Italy. Death tolls were rising and the WHO hesitated to declare it a pandemic until on March 11. Those key weeks may be examined by historians and experts to understand how some data appeared to show the virus had been suppressed when it was about to become a tidal wave in Europe and the US, shutting down airports and businesses and sending more than 1 billion people into lockdowns globally.

In fact, it was “dire new reports” provided to London and Washington by the Imperial College team that forced governments to change direction. Those reports showed that if governments continue to do nothing or pushed for herd immunity there could be overwhelmed hospitals and large numbers of dead. Even countries that were outside the European Union orbit, and perhaps more inclined to be sceptical, such as Israel and Russia, waited while things grew worse.

As late as in mid-March Russia still boasted that it had few cases of the virus. Turkey, which had warned about the Iran outbreak in February, also said the virus was under control and that it was “virus-free” on March 8. Israel took measures to trace cases and stop travel from infected countries, eventually closing schools in mid-March and ordering a lockdown. Moscow ordered a lockdown on March 29 and regions such as Chechnya in Russia also closed their doors.

Why did Western countries walk blindly into the pandemic? Didn’t their independent sources warn them that the data they were looking at, which promised the virus could be easily suppressed in two weeks, might be wrong? The general view in most countries was that lockdowns for two weeks would have the effect they did in Wuhan. The “flattening” of the curve was adhered to like a maxim, but it may have been as wrong as flat earth theories are. If the data about the curve was off by thousands or more in China and if the curve was not as flat as it looked, then resulting models about what would happen in Italy, France, the US or UK would also be wrong.

It appears that governments sobered up in mid-March, with lockdowns and border closures. The EU closed its external borders on March 17, the same day France ordered a lockdown. Spain had chosen the same path on March 15 and Italy had extended its lockdown to the whole country. The UK followed a week later. In Spain and the UK, the authorities have warned of tougher measures and more weeks under various types of curfews.

The problem emerging is that there was no Wuhan magic wand for European states. Per capita, China’s deaths per million due to the virus is very low at 2, while Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Luxembourg all have deaths per million of more than 30. Numbers are likely to only rise. The WHO model showed not only a flattened curve, where deaths level off to dozens or a few hundred a day, but they are supposed to decline within a week. They are not declining. States are waiting. Hundreds of millions of people are waiting.

There is little denying that looking at what Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, or Singapore did can help inform responses, because they may be more transparent than Wuhan. South Korea had around 10,000 cases and 158 deaths by the end of March. Most European countries are rapidly exceeding that, adding hundreds of cases a day. Singapore, with a population of five million, has only 1,000 cases and three deaths, while Austria. with a population of 9 million, has 9,300 cases and 108 deaths already. Israel, a state that is easy to cut off like Singapore, has 4,300 cases and 16 deaths.

It appears that even the Singapore model is difficult to repeat elsewhere.

Questions now emerge about what went wrong in countries that have closer relations with China and should have been more aware of what happened in Wuhan. Did Russia’s government really not know until it was too late what was happening? Why did China not provide Iran with more guidance in mid-February when the virus spread to Qom and Tehran?

It is natural that more authoritarian governments hide their suspected cases from other countries, but even authoritarian governments don’t want to visit disaster on their own government and people. What information did the Russian president receive in late March that led Russia to suddenly begin taking the potential threat more seriously? Vladimir Putin donned a yellow hazmat-style suit on March 25 to showcase Russian preparations. Is it reasonable to conclude the former intelligence officer did not have questions about the size of the threat or that he didn’t act on them?

We may not know what Western leaders knew or suspected about China’s figures, or if they suspected the WHO was not forthcoming with enough information. This crisis has shed light on the need to be sceptical and for governments to try to independently verify information.

Western governments have the best technology and should be able to rely even on their own local sources, such as Westerners who left Wuhan in January during the lockdown. Either they didn’t rely on these reports, or they didn’t take the threat seriously.

Today many countries appear to be paying heavy consequences for questionable models and data that presented a far too rosy picture of the ability of countries to rapidly reduce the number of infections and level-off the number of deaths. With deaths across the EU at almost 25,000 by the end of March, and 370,000 infections, serious questions must be asked about the data presented in March and early February and what might have been done better.

This is especially true as lockdowns cannot go on forever and most countries don’t appear to have a “plan B” on what to do next.

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