Numbers are supposed to provide us an objective basis to establish perspective and understanding of a situation. No matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat, 2+2=4. Facts presented by numbers should transcend politics. Numbers should provide clarity. The numbers don’t lie.  Unfortunately, in our post-truth age when anything and everything is worth an argument, and critical thinking is often subverted by political partisanship, even the numbers are hard to believe today. The coronavirus pandemic has served as the perfect demonstration of this collapse in objective facts and perspectives. There are so many politically propelled numbers flying around to explain and define the coronavirus that it is difficult to identify what is true.

At the beginning (January) we watched the growing confirmed case and death count in China. The numbers seemed astounding then as they passed several hundred, then several thousand. That seems like ancient history today as more than 2.3 million people around the world have confirmed diagnoses of the coronavirus and the death count has passed 160,000. Even as China’s numbers surged the threat of the coronavirus seemed far away. It was “over there” among the other cultures of Asia and not here in the land of the free.

unreliable pandemic numbers

As the coronavirus went global the number of confirmed cases in the US and Europe seemed like a fraction of what they were in China and the threat of the virus continued to be held at bay in the popular imagination. Then everything changed. The number of confirmed cases in various European nations and the US surpassed China. This was the point where we were supposed to be shocked and rally together in a posture of national unity against the coronavirus. Instead, we began to talk about new numbers and effectively changed the subject.

The new number many of the talking heads began to talk about was “per capita”. It did not matter that the US confirmed case count was surpassing Italy. Total numbers didn’t matter. On a per-capita basis, the US was still behind Italy and any other European nation. As far as China was concerned, we could not believe their numbers any longer. It had to be higher than what the Chinese government was telling the world. Accusations of coverup and deception began to fill the popular storylines of pundits and politicians.

unreliable pandemic numbers

As the numbers we paid attention began to change, so did the subjects we talked about and so did our understanding of the scale of the pandemic. Was America’s experience worse than China’s? Was China lying? Why was Italy’s experience so much worse off than other nations? Did China plant the virus? Was China responsible for America’s shutdown? The public’s grasp of the crisis became a politicized shell game where the standards of fact were constantly moving as were the measurements by which various claims of fact could be measured. As this pattern continued, various uses of numbers to report on the spread of the pandemic became increasingly confusing and ultimately unbelievable.

Last week multiple news stories described South Dakota as having the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in the United States and the new “hot spot” for the virus. Between April 6-12, the state experienced a 154% increase in confirmed cases. A deeper look at the numbers revealed these statements and measurements to be confusing at best, absurd at worst. As of this writing, South Dakota has slightly more than 1,500 confirmed cases. In the last 24 hours alone, multiple states saw more confirmed cases than South Dakota has witnessed since the pandemic was declared over a month ago.

unreliable pandemic numbers

The primary driver of these confusing uses of numbers to explain the pandemic is ignorance. Politicized rhetoric and motives certainly compound the problem, but the reality is many are using numbers to try and explain a situation that we still do not fully grasp. It may be a decade before reliable numbers can be utilized to explain the scale of the 2020 pandemic. Many nations in the developing world from India to Venezuela certainly have numbers far higher than what is currently being reported but the lack of testing or weakness in healthcare infrastructure is keeping their reported numbers artificially low.

In the 1918 pandemic, the developing world was hit far harder than Europe but the scale of devastation that spread to areas like Africa and Asia was difficult to measure at that time for many of the same reasons as today. Historians cite a death toll of 50 million to 100 million from the 1918 pandemic. That wide gap and variance are based upon ignorance. We cannot accurately measure what we do not accurately know.

Historically we can utilize numbers like per capita, total confirmed cases and total death counts and even the percentage of infected to measure and tell the story of a pandemic but that is not the case in the present. In the present, we can only use numbers to track the growth and spread of the virus because the whole story is not yet known.

To that end, it is beneficial to track the same numbers consistently to understand what is unfolding today. If per capita is your preference that is fine, but we shouldn’t change our use of per capita to track the virus because we believe one of the nation’s data is untrustworthy. At this point, every nation’s data is untrustworthy. Some of the causes for this unreliable data are deception and coverup but more often than not it is simply systems of bureaucracy and healthcare caught off guard and unprepared to account for a disease that only became public four months ago.

Beware of any politicians or pundits who claim their country is immune from this lack of reliability. It is not a Chinese phenomenon. It is not an American or Italian phenomenon. This is the reality of living in a crisis unfolding in real-time.