Editor Misses Story Right Under His Nose (Didn’t Do the Math)

There’s a lot of sloppy reporting about Coronavirus and here is a representative case.

Global Report: Nearly a quarter of people in Delhi have had coronavirus, study finds.
Antibodies found in more than 23% of Indian capital’s residents; Trump admits virus getting worse; Victoria reports record Australian daily tally

Headline from The Guardian, 22 July 2020

The story tells us that public health experts in India tested a large sample of Delhi residents and found Coronavirus antibodies in almost a quarter of them. The officials extrapolate that to mean 6.5 million people have been infected in the city.

I know you probably are very tired of hearing Coronavirus statistics, but bear with me for a minute. This gets surprising.

The article also reports that 123,747 cases of Covid-19 illness were actually identified in Delhi, according to official numbers. A little arithmetic tells us that is less than 2% of the estimated number who had the infection.

Thus, apparently all the others suffered either mild or no symptoms — is that what we can surmise? Less than 2% of people with the infection actually got sick enough to even merit a test or some medical attention?

But wait, let’s go on to some more data. Officials count 3,663 Covid deaths in Delhi, the story tells us. That’s less than 0.1% of infections.

Let’s try to put this in perspective. How does that death rate compare to a typical seasonal flu in, say, USA? Hmm, it’s similar! For example, in the 2017-2018 season, USA recorded 45 million flu cases and 61,000 flu deaths, or 0.14% mortality rate.1 If the statistics in the Guardian article are correct, maybe Indians don’t need to fear coronavirus any more than they fear flu or another communicable disease? Did the reporters miss the real story?

Or maybe there’s something wrong with the numbers. Are the reported tests unreliable? Did someone get a decimal point out of place? If the reporters had done some math, maybe they would have asked these questions.

But why bother? The press is on a roll, reporting the horrors of the pandemic, like their fellow journalists around the world. Once the “crisis” theme got established as foundational truth, apparently the blinders went on. Thereafter, every story about the subject either supports the theme, or there’s no story. So the editors buried the info above in a mish-mash of scary reports about other places where the virus is spreading, and didn’t bother to consider the implications of what they were saying.

I’ll try to not to stray into conspiracy theory territory here. I suppose some aspect of the reported statistics was wrong, and Delhi citizens really do need to wear their masks. But this type of reporting makes me wonder if the scientists who call this “mass hysteria” might have a point.2

As they say in the news business, if it bleeds, it leads. Although the hysteria — correction, crisis — has been a disaster for tens of millions who lost jobs due to shutdowns, Covid-19 probably is giving news publishers a good boost.

Notes

  1. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Disease Burden of Influenza.
  2. Example: “Top Israeli prof claims simple stats show virus plays itself out after 70 daysTimes of Israel, 14 April 2020. Also see anything by John P. Ioannidis, for example “A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data“, Stat, 17 March 2020

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