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26th Sep 2020

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Why coronavirus numbers tell complex stories

  • Determining the mortality rate of the virus remains an open question for many epidemiologists (Photo: SWIFT)

Numbers seem to be exact, but they can also be unintentionally misleading when it comes to the coronavirus epidemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has passed two million confirmed infections and 130,000 deaths worldwide, affecting over 200 countries.

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However, approximately 50 percent of the global burden of the coronavirus is in Europe, where almost a million cases have been registered and more than 100,000 people have died.

While the worst of the pandemic seems to be behind China, where the virus first emerged, Wuhan figures jumped up 50 percent last Friday, when authorities recounted 1,290 additional deaths of people who had died at home before reaching hospital.

Yet, the US is still in the acceleration phase and registers the largest number of coronavirus cases worldwide - and the hardest-hit city in the world is currently New York.

Successful lockdowns

"The storm clouds of this pandemic still hang heavily over the European region," warned the European director of the World Health Organisation, Hans Kluge, last week as countries start to ease restrictions.

Italy and Spain are the most-affected countries in the region, followed by Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

Notably, Italy has managed to slow the rate of new cases of Covid-19 after more than a month under a nationwide lockdown, while the total of new confirmed cases indicates that Italy seems to have successfully flattened the curve.

The number of daily coronavirus deaths peaked on 27 March. Both daily new cases and deaths have declined since then.

Although Spain has been criticised for having a slow response to the pandemic, the most affected country in Europe seems also to be bending the curve.

Spain's peak day for coronavirus deaths was registered on 2 April - a week after daily deaths decreased by about 34 percent.

Likewise, improvements have been registered in countries such as Austria and Denmark, as well as in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Meanwhile, Belgian prime minister Sophie Wilmès was obliged to explain last week why the country of 11.5m inhabitants presents one of the highest death tolls in Europe.

The Belgian government "made the choice of full transparency when communicating deaths linked to Covid-19," she said.

Blurry numbers

In fact, the total amount of Belgian fatalities includes also suspected deaths linked to the coronavirus even if they have not been proven by a test.

"In Europe, no country counts like others. We have the most detailed method," the Belgian health minister Maggie De Block told LN24 broadcaster.

There was a similar situation in Spain until last Friday, when the Spanish government decided that the regional authorities must register only the number of cases and deaths proven by tests.

Another complicating factor is the total number of infected people, as many are not tested and others do not present symptoms.

As a result, determining how deadly the virus is remains an open question for epidemiologists, who expect new waves that might last into 2022.

"Currently, we have a huge bias in the numbers coming from different countries - therefore the data are not directly comparable," the director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Medical Biometry at the University of Ulm in Germany, Dietrich Rothenbacher, told the BBC.

"What we need to really have valid and comparable numbers would be a defined and systematic way to choose a representative sampling frame," he added.

At the same time, data indicates how European countries are trying to scale up their testing capabilities as part of their public health strategies.

Education in coronavirus times: trial and error

Most EU countries are organising distance e-learning to support students amid the coronavirus pandemic, but skills and opportunities are not the same among member states.

WHO urges caution as EU states soften lockdowns

Even though some countries in Europe are considering to ease lockdowns and restrictive measures, the European branch of the World Health Organization warns that the number of infections and death for coronavirus keeps growing in the region.

Analysis

'Corona Orientalism': nothing to learn from the East?

Now (as before) there are lessons to learn about how a number of Eastern countries are tackling this coronavirus crisis. We have to drop our bipolar world view of ​​the 'free West' against the 'authoritarian East'.

Europe's dilemma: to follow Asian 'exit strategies' or not?

Several Asian countries have seen the coronavirus surge back after easing restrictions - despite their initial success in restraining the outbreak. As a result, EU member states maybe starting to loosen restrictions without having a 'concrete' example to learn from.

Opinion

Italy has a responsibility, too

Little wonder the leaders of Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden are unwilling to sign off: they're not going to give money so the Italians can fund a tax cut in the middle of an economic crisis.

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