Coronavirus and what the data is telling us

This is one of my regular appeals for us to work harder at understanding the Pandemic and to be slower to jump to tribal political responses of either panic or complacency. This week it was announced that the UK now topped the list as the worst hit country for deaths per million.  This led to a slew of responses and angry demands to know why we had failed.

Throughout the pandemic I’ve consistently argued that getting involved in creating league tables is extremely unhelpful. As well as being macabre, I’m not sure how much it informs. Remember that we have had to go to a measure per million, not even a % to identify a difference. Furthermore, if I’ve understood what has been reported correctly, the measure is about weekly mortality meaning that this is something that will change depending on where different countries are in terms of the peak.  But if you look at a table and see the UK at 16.55 deaths per million and Germany at 10.17 then that means the difference is between 0.001655% and 0.001017%. That’s right, you have to get to the 4th decimal point before you see a difference.[1]

As I have argued before, when the difference is statistically that close, then you have to be very careful about assuming that the difference is substantial and due to factors within a government’s control, especially when you consider what natural factors might be at play and simple random variation.

However, I don’t think this stops us from asking “Have we got things wrong?” and “Could we have done better in our response?”  I have also argued quite strongly since the early days that we should have been prepared to act quickly to close down the borders, enforced isolation of the unwell, protected our care homes and looked to implement short sharp shock tougher local lockdowns to prevent the virus spreading within the country or at least slow it down. I also agree that our track and trace response was woefully inadequate.

What I am not convinced about is that starting lockdowns a week or two earlier, finishing them a week later or changing the rules within them a bit more would have made that much difference. Remember I write as an opinionated lay-person not as an expert here. I am not saying that those things definitely are not so. What I am saying is that I’m not seeing a convincing case produced for that. Furthermore, I am seeing other variables mentioned but not followed up on. Things are stated, used politically and then forgotten about when there should be more curiosity about them and more attention given to them.

How many times during the pandemic have we been told that there has been a greater incidence of COVID cases, hospitalisation and mortality amongst BAME communities. If this is correct and some communities are being disproportionality affected then we need to understand why. This is not and must not be about COVID shaming and prejudice. Rather, we need a genuine, serious and compassionate effort to understand better. This is particularly important because other reports suggest that the ethnic communities most disproportionately affected are the least likely to take up  the vaccine. 

In the past I have suggested a hypothesis of why we might see these differentials with social, economic and health factors at work.  I don’t know if my hypothesis was correct but by this stage I hope that those with responsibility for responding to the virus have a better idea.

Getting to an understanding of course will require all to play their part. It means that the Government must stop being defensive and cagey and open about the challenges. It means that opposition politicians need to commit to a non-opportunist, constructive approach (especially when their own proposals are minor variations on the same theme and a belief that they would have been magically more administratively competent).   It means that we need to see less of political correspondents and journalists asking gotcha questions and more of health and science correspondents asking genuinely probing questions to illicit understansding.

If we don’t stop to ask the “why” questions then we may find that despite the vaccine that we still have a COVID-19 problem for some time to come.

[1] See Britain now has the highest daily Covid death rate in the world | Daily Mail Online for deaths per million chart

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