Frayed Nerves

Disconcerting new from Germany. The corona reproduction rate (R) has crept back up from 0.7 to 1, meaning that every person carrying the virus, knowingly or otherwise, on average infects one other person. The news, not entirely unexpected after last week’s easing of the lockdown restrictions, prompted Dr Lothar Wieler of the Robert Koch Institute to call on Germans to stay at home ‘as much as possible’. The federal research institute is charged with disease control and prevention.

Dr Wieler also revealed that the mortality rate of German covid-19 patients has been rising steadily and now stands at 3.8 percent, higher than the global average estimated by the World Health Organisation (3.4%), but well below the rates reported by neighbouring France and Belgium. The discrepancy can be attributed, in part, to differences in the way corona deaths are tabulated. In its tally, Belgium includes deaths recorded in care homes of patients who had not been tested for the virus. Many other countries, including Germany, only include deceased hospital patients diagnosed with covid-19.

A much more telling set of data is being supplied by national statistics institutes that crunch vast volumes of historical data to extract a specific and remarkably precise ‘normal’ number of deaths for each week of the year. Using this data, an excess number of fatalities can easily be obtained and expressed in absolute and relative terms. The numbers also serve to reveal ‘hidden deaths’: suspected corona deaths who passed away without having been formally diagnosed.

Statistical data show that between 11 March and 25 April, the number of deaths recorded in New York City was 309 percent higher than what might have been expected in normal times. The discrepancy between the ‘excess deaths’ and the reported number of covid-19 deaths amounts to about 4,000.

Over roughly the same period, Spain experienced a mortality 67 percent higher than the statistical normal with 9,100 excess deaths not officially accounted for. In Belgium those numbers are 34 percent and 600 respectively. Much criticised for its apparently relaxed attitude to the pandemic, Sweden records a relatively low 18% peak in the number of excess deaths. However, the country’s actual corona mortality rate is amongst the highest in Europe.

This is perhaps a good time to remember Mark Twain and his timeless observation that ‘there are lies, damn lies, and statistics’. The numbers are, for the most, incomparable and only hint at a trend. Used to compare the performance of national authorities in their battle against the virus, statistics are of limited use and may even promote alt-truths. For now, there is no magical bullet and each country fights the pandemic as best it can.

However, it is still slightly disconcerting that as lockdowns are eased, the virus’ reproduction rate promptly creeps up. Though that may have been expected, it also stresses already frayed nerves.