Covid-19 and the Cautious Reassurances Data Offers

Jonathan Gornall

AFP Photo: Samuel Corum / Getty Images

By now, most governments around the world have recognized the reality that, in the ongoing absence of either a vaccine or an anti-viral treatment, social distancing is humankind’s best form of defense against SARS-CoV-2, the cause of Covid-19.

At the same time, many of the one-third of the world’s population now in lockdown are rapidly becoming eager consumers of data, searching for signs of hope amid the daily barrage of statistics. But statistics can be slippery customers, vulnerable to misrepresentation or misunderstanding. If we really want to understand how we are faring in this life-or-death struggle, we need to drill down past the superficialities.

Luckily, much of the heavy lifting is being done for us by an organization called Our World in Data, an online collaboration between researchers at the University of Oxford, the non-profit organization Global Change Data Lab and a global community of scholars devoted to making data and research on the world’s biggest problems accessible to all.

There are, of course, hitches with all Covid-19 statistics – the only cases of infection we know about are those that have been confirmed by testing, which is far from universal. Nevertheless, in terms of broad trends, inclusion of the currently unknown cases would be highly unlikely to disrupt the patterns we are seeing.

So what are those patterns telling us?

Data from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, analyzed by the OWD, shows that, as of April 14, there were 1,873,265 confirmed cases of infection around the world. Despite the breathtaking scale of this figure, on its own it doesn’t tell us anything about where we might be heading. The crucial factor is how long it is taking the global number of cases to double.

On April 2, there were 928,490 cases, which means by April 14 the number of cases had doubled in 12 days – and that is relatively good news. If the doubling rate remained constant we would be looking at exponential growth, which produces very large numbers in a very short time. Take a country with, say, 500 cases. If that number consistently doubled every three days, for example, in a little over a month there would be more than a million cases.

Right now, however, the speed at which the number of global infections is doubling is slowing down significantly. The most recent doubling took 12 days, whereas it had taken only seven days for the caseload to double between March 26 and April 2, to 936,098 cases from 468,049.

It is in such behind-the-headline numbers, demonstrating that Covid-19 is failing to achieve exponentiality, that hope can be found – along with confirmation that the global lockdown is working.

The global doubling rate is also a good benchmark against which the progress of individual nations can be measured. The US, for example, with 582,594 cases and a doubling rate of 10 days as of April 14, is slightly behind the global curve, but still improving – at the end of March its caseload was doubling in just four days.

Likewise, analysis of doubling rates on April 14 shows that Covid-19 hotspots Italy and Iran, where the number of cases were doubling at 19 and 16 days respectively, were doing better by this standard than countries such as the UK (doubling every nine days), India (seven days) and Russia (five days).

Looking at the spread of the virus through the “doubling” prism also paints an interesting picture of progress in the Gulf states.

In the UAE, for example, there were 4,521 recorded cases as of April 14, up from half that number in the seven days since April 7. Although this doubling rate is still faster than the global rate of 12 days, it nevertheless represents an improvement; on April 7 it had taken just three days for the number of cases to double.

Interestingly – and perhaps reflecting a unity of approach – as of April 14 all six GCC states were showing a similar pattern, with Oman doubling its number of cases to 813 in 7 days and Qatar (3,231 cases), Saudi Arabia (4,934) and Kuwait (1,300) all doubling in eight days. In Bahrain, with 1,361 cases, doubled in 10 days.

Data for deaths also offer hope. On April 8, the number of daily recorded global deaths peaked at 7,412. On April 14, less than a week later, there were 5,341 confirmed deaths, a drop of almost 28 percent. Similar falls are also starting to be seen in individual countries, including the US, where a peak of 1,961 deaths on April 11 had fallen to 1,624 by the 14, and in the UK, Spain and Italy.

Watching a growing total number of cases on a daily basis can be a depressing experience. But in such times data, correctly appraised, can be our morale-boosting friend. So long as the number of days it takes to double the infection rate continues to increase, and the number of daily deaths is starting to falter, we are, slowly but surely, winning the fight against this virus.

In China, the initial epicenter of the pandemic, it has taken no fewer than 64 days for the current accumulative total of 83,303 cases to double since February 10, with an almost negligible increase recorded since about March 26.

When the world catches up with this type of progress, we can start to breathe more easily. Until then, though, even as more and more countries start to make tentative moves towards easing lockdowns in the interests of economic recovery, the data tell us one more, vital thing.

Lockdown and strict social distancing works and, in the absence of cures or vaccines, it is the only thing currently standing between the world and a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. For all our sakes, we need to stick with it and not be tempted to drop our guard prematurely.


Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.