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Are you confused about Coronavirus statistics?

The Coronavirus statistics vaulted by media and government are bewildering, and nobody is clear what methods are being used to count or what mathematical models are being employed. Ultimately, however, only one figure matters: the proportion of the population killed by Coronavirus. We won't know this figure until the viral outbreak is over; but at the moment the signs are very promising that we have over-reacted and we have a lot less to worry about than might be imagined.


At the time of writing two sorts of statistic are peppered across our screens every day by the media and by government: the number of Coronavirus cases; and the number of coronavirus fatalities, each for a given country / region / continent. These figures frighten people; they are fed to us as though we imagine fields full of thousands of people being slain with machine guns, or overflowing mortuaries with thousands of bodies stacked one upon the other. But the reality is more prosaic. The mortuaries are not overflowing. And there is no reason to imagine that they may become so.


The British government provides no benchmarks of how it is measuring the statistics it feeds us with. But here are some likely parameters, because this is all the government can currently measure. A coronavirus case is defined as a hospital admission in which a patient has tested positive for coronavirus. A coronavirus death is defined as a person who dies in hospital having tested positive for coronavirus. Government recorded coronavirus deaths do not represent the whole. Some people will die of coronavirus at home, without having ever tested positive. That applies particularly amongst the elderly in care homes. But measuring the number people who die in hospital seems a reasonable approach, as normally people displaying the symptoms of coronavirus will seek and obtain treatment before the virus kills them (if it ever does). Therefore, we may infer, excluding people who die in care homes from the statistics will exclude only a proportionately small number of people while collecting data representing those unreported deaths would be unduly costly.


Government figures for numbers of people who has tested positive for coronavirus are mostly worthless, save for measuring the effectiveness of hospital-based coronavirus treatments (you can compare death data for people treated against people sent home or otherwise untreated). That is because the people who have tested positive are not representative or cross-sectional of the population as a whole; they are limited to a very unusual cross section of society, namely people who have been admitted to hospital with coronavirus symptoms. What proportion of the population currently has coronavirus (or has recovered from it) is unknown, and cannot even be guessed at because we have no data. Nobody is testing cross-sectionally. A distinguished BBC journalist recently asserted that 4% of the UK population is infected, which amounts to approximately 2,500,000 people. He did not cite his source, but we may imagine it was governmental. This stands in contrast to the number of confirmed cases in the United Kingdom which at the time of writing is 79,000 (approximately 0.12% of the population).


Nobody has explained the basis upon which it is correct to conclude that there are more than twenty times as many undetected infected people as detected infected people. The assertion of a 4% infection rate is one of a number of concerningly variable figures. Other scientists have suggested that the infection rate may be as high as 50%. The fact is that, absent a cross-sectional system of testing (now apparently indefinitely abandoned as government policy), we will never know how many people are infected. A very substantial proportion of people infected will probably never know they have been, because the disease makes ill or seriously ill only a small proportion of those who contract it. For the majority of people who contract it (including, the evidence suggests, the author), the symptoms are mild and do not prevent a person from doing a normal day's work.


Ultimately however the infection rate is not to the point. We are all infected every day with all sorts of things that never cause us any symptoms; the world is a dirty place, and we may all recall in the still recent past a period when every flat surface was not regularly wiped down with an antiseptic lotion. Our body is designed to fight infections, and in normal times it does so far more effectively than any treatment a hospital might be able to provide. Ventilation is an acute procedure for the survivors of serious car accidents, and other similar injuries or illnesses; it is barely necessary for the majority of viral infections and it causes enormous discomfort and harm to the body and its immune system to place a person on a ventilator. It should never be used unless it is the only way of saving a person's life who is otherwise sure to die.


The only figure that matters in the end is the proportion of people in society as a whole who die or are going to die. Only this figure will tell us how many funerals we will have to attend and loved ones we will have to bereave. Only this is the measure of prospective human misery that might warrant the radical damage we are doing to our society and its economy.


The Black Death in the fourteenth century killed 30-60% of Europe's population (then about 75 to 125 million people; the world was a much smaller place). This is the worst pandemic in known history. The second worst was the so-called Spanish 'flu in 1920 (so known because wartime censorship rules still in force banned reporting of the 'influenza outbreak, that was global, in most European countries except in Spain, to where it was believed by a large proportion of people to be limited or to have originated). Modern studies conclude that Spanish 'flu killed up to 100 million people representing between 1% and 6% of the world's population.


The British government has offered various figures for the eventual number of deaths from coronavirus, but we won't know which figure is correct until all the dying has been done. The prevailing figure proffered at the current time is a total death toll of 200,000 for the United Kingdom, which would correspond to 0.35 per cent of the British population. At the time of writing the number of actual deaths recorded by the British government stands at 10,000. So on the basis of the 200,000 figure, we have another 95% of the dying to go. 200,000 is an extremely pessimistic figure.


John Donne taught us that every death is a tragedy; those of us who have lived with an untimely death in the immediate family know this all too well. 0.35% must be put in context. 1% of the population dies every year anyway, which in the United Kingdom means about 680,000 people. The vast majority of these deaths are the result of serious illnesses, most of them far more lethal than coronavirus (heart disease and cancer being two of the big killers). We do not know what proportion of the 200,000 (if that figure is correct) that will ultimately die will fall within the 1% of already inevitable deaths, and we will not be able to assess that until the pandemic is (mostly) over because then we will be able to compare total death rates from any cause with death rates associated with coronavirus. On the very worst case scenario, the figure of 200,000 represents the total number of British deaths (that is to say, twenty times the current confirmed death numbers of 10,000) and none of those people would have died anyway, coronavirus might increase society's total deaths (including from natural and unnatural causes) from by 30% in one year. This would be grave, but manageable. Would that very pessimistic scenario, lumping pessimistic assumptions one on top of the other, justify the economic and social damage caused by the country's current lockdown arrangements? That will depend how long those arrangements continue.


Finally, compare the figure of current deaths in the United Kingdom of 10,000 at the time of writing (0.0015 per cent of the population) with the annual number of road deaths or serious injuries in the United Kingdom (approximately the same - slightly more than 10,000) or the number of people killed by influenza in the United Kingdom each year (approximately 0.008% of the population, or 55,000). Compare it with the number of fatalities each year on Indian roads (151,000).


We must ask ourselves whether the coercive lockdown measures society is currently undertaking are justified even by the statistical assumptions we are working to, never mind what reliable evidence (which could only be established by testing) might tell us. Is the real pandemic government and media hysteria, fed by bogus science and an inability to get a problem in proportion? Does the fact that we have no de facto leader of government present a challenge in generating blind governmental drift, a sclerosis in the event that a dramatic change in course is needed? The big decision that needs to be made quickly now is whether to come out of lockdown sooner or later. A number of European countries (Austria, Norway, Czech Republic, Spain) are electing to emerge sooner, while at least one (Sweden) never went into lockdown. To unlock the United Kingdom promptly would require a strong leader willing to tolerate a substantial element of dissensus. We had better hope he is out of hospital soon.

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