Lies, Damned Lies, Covid-19 Statistics, And A Wrecked Economy
People wait in line for rapid-antigen Covid-19 tests, in New Delhi, on July 27, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

Lies, Damned Lies, Covid-19 Statistics, And A Wrecked Economy


Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics! Nobody quite knows who exactly coined this colourful phrase, but its popularity can safely be attributed to Benjamin Disraeli in 1895.

Cut to circa 2020. Have you noticed how Covid-19 has converted all of us into amateur epidemiologists and half-informed statisticians? I mean, you may have flunked math, but today you hold forth on the difference between ‘net positivity rate’ and ‘infection rate’ with such breezy confidence!

Lies, Damned Lies, Covid-19 Statistics, And A Wrecked Economy

But dear friends, little knowledge is dangerous, especially in picking needles from a haystack of copious, often meaningless numbers sprayed at us daily in WhatsApp forwards and popular media. Anybody can twist anything to make supremely contrarian claims. Here, sample this:

Yay-sayer: India’s got the lowest ‘deaths per million’;

Naysayer: that’s only because you’ve also got the lowest ‘tests per million’ – and by the way, India now has 30% of all new cases, which is way above our 17% share of the global population, so are we doubly doomed?

Yay-sayer: India’s ‘percentage of active cases’ is declining;

Naysayer: your ‘day-to-day ratio of new cases is consistently greater than 1’ so the curve is steepening, not flattening.

Yay-sayer: India’s recovery rate is increasing every day and is already above 70%;

Naysayer: that’s a sleight-of-hand, since the recovery rate must equal ‘100 minus fatality rate’, ie, it’s already 98% so why create a feel-good red herring and falsely celebrate a reading in the 70s?

And so on and on and on, bewitching, confusing, scaring the hell out of ordinary folk.

Ignore Numeric Excesses, Look At Anti-Bodies

Now, I am not an expert, but I think we need to largely side-step the numeric excesses described above. Instead, we should zoom in on data points that are exceptionally striking but have been largely ignored.

  • Serological surveys across different hotspots seem to indicate that between 20-30% of the population has developed anti-bodies.
  • ‘Walk-in case studies’, i.e. real people getting tested at labs, have thrown up a remarkably consistent outcome, ie roughly a fifth of the people have anti-bodies.
  • Finally, let me make a confession: we got 20 people in our household, from family members to helpers/guards/drivers, tested for anti-bodies, and guess what, four of them, ie 20%, had anti-bodies!
Health workers take blood samples from local residents at a serological survey site in New Delhi, on Aug. 6, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)
Health workers take blood samples from local residents at a serological survey site in New Delhi, on Aug. 6, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

I am absolutely thrown by the consistency of outcomes from such diverse data sets:

  • One a scientific serological survey mounted by experts;
  • Another a truly random nation-wide sample of “volunteers”;
  • The third an equally biased/non-random sample of a single/specific household…
And yet all three utterly dissimilar data sets have produced a remarkably unified result – i.e., all three have shown a 20%-plus penetration of the virus within our communities.

Clearly, Mr Covid-19, our horrible enemy, seems to have silently, asymptomatically invaded our bodies, not causing much illness or distress, but giving a natural vaccination to about a fifth of us. Now combine this with another data fact, viz that a community gets ‘herd immunity’ when about 50-60% of the population has anti-bodies, and we may have a potent reality to base our actions on.

Dear Policymakers, Please Don’t Give Us Economic Circuit-Breakers

But unfortunately, our politicians and bureaucrats are not the most intelligent data-readers; they are certainly not the most calibrated or sober action-takers. When confronted with contrarian findings, they panic and take knee-jerk actions, banning this, that, and the other, swinging wildly, first left and then right, fluctuating with every tide. Instead of fixing the economy, they end up creating ‘circuit-breakers’ that dislocate a fragile recovery even before it has taken roots. You don’t believe me? Here, look at these ‘circuit-breakers’ from just the last few weeks.

Circuit-Breaker-1: You shall quarantine for 14 days after alighting from the aircraft, even though you may be travelling in from an Indian city with a lower or similar infection rate. I mean, if I live in New Delhi and fly to Nariman Point in South Mumbai, why should I suffer a mandatory quarantine, when somebody in Bandra, who is as exposed as I am, does not have to do so? And why are airfares capped when the demand is so dismal that market prices could plummet below the fixed tariff, creating sales and cashflows for struggling carriers? These truly myopic rules, just slammed by rote by unthinking administrators, are awful circuit-breakers holding up internal commerce, killing the civil aviation, hotel, and a clutch of ancillary businesses.

Circuit-Breaker-2: Why are hotels closed in several parts of India, when gyms and beauty parlours have opened shop? I mean, if close physical contact in gyms is not risky, how is staying safely isolated in a hotel room suddenly that vulnerable? This whimsical rule, along with the 14-day mandatory quarantine, is a serial killer.

Circuit-Breaker-3: Weekend lockdowns. Why? In fact, in Kolkata, they’ve created a plus-point in ridicule, with a “randomised lockdown” on any two days of the week, as if the government is playing “I spy” with the virus, trying to surprise and outwit it, saying “see Mr Covid-19, you thought you would strike on Tuesday, here, we’ve shut the city on that day, now go figure!”. It’s quite amazing what our policymakers are capable of conjuring, something utterly tragic and hilarious.

Circuit-Breaker-4: Chinese imports banned, immediately! If an electronic component is out of stock but lying in port, tough luck; just stop your factory and let a million unfinished handsets or TVs gather dust. So-what if supply chains across the economy are disrupted? Just stuff it.

Circuit-Breaker-5: Chinese cash is also banned, immediately and without any notice! Now, if you were in the middle of a rights issue which was going to be subscribed 50% by your Chinese partner who got an FIPB approval a decade back to invest in your startup, tough luck again buddy; the government has banned but not framed the subsequent rules, so just stuff it one more time.

I can simply go on, but I reckon the point has been made compellingly. India’s policymaking babus (bureaucrats) are doing immense damage with stop-start, go/no-go, whimsical, circuit-breaking rules, made and unmade in response to contrarian stats which can be read both ways, good or bad, depending on your mood and time of day. Seriously, they should listen to their own Prime Minister, who wants containment, contact tracing and surveillance to be the only mantras in the battle against Mr Covid-19. Else, we run the risk of losing both, the health and economic battles.

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of three books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’, and ‘Super Century: What India Must Do to Rise by 2050’.

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