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Statistics and the Pandemic

Summary:
Data are critical to fighting COVID-19, but cross-country comparisons have consistently focused too much on the wrong sort. This has given some political leaders a strong incentive to downplay the pandemic, arguably contributing to millions of deaths. CAMBRIDGE – “There are three kinds of lies,” Mark Twain famously wrote. “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Too often, the COVID-19 crisis has lent support to the suspicions Twain’s bon mot expresses. How Not to Launch a Digital Currency Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Europe’s Digital Future PS OnPoint Alexandros Michailidis/Pool/Anadolu Agency via Getty

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Data are critical to fighting COVID-19, but cross-country comparisons have consistently focused too much on the wrong sort. This has given some political leaders a strong incentive to downplay the pandemic, arguably contributing to millions of deaths.

CAMBRIDGE – “There are three kinds of lies,” Mark Twain famously wrote. “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Too often, the COVID-19 crisis has lent support to the suspicions Twain’s bon mot expresses.

Data are critical to fighting the pandemic, but cross-country comparisons have focused too much on the wrong sort. This has given some political leaders a strong incentive to downplay the pandemic, arguably contributing to millions of deaths.

Given widespread mistrust of experts and mainstream media, it is important to emphasize the most informative and reliable COVID-19 data possible. Most attention has centered on countries’ officially recorded infections and deaths. The first statistical priority here is pretty obvious: divide cases and deaths by population size in order to express them in per capita terms.

But even when reported on a per capita basis, official totals usually grossly underestimate the true number of infections and deaths. Coronavirus carriers count as infected only if they test positive or are hospitalized, while the death toll comprises only those with COVID-19 listed on their death certificate.

Estimates of the extent of undercounting of infections and deaths vary. The Economist’s excess-mortality model calculates that COVID-19 has so far killed 7-13 million people globally, about three times the current official death toll of 3.5 million. The undercount tends to be more extreme in lower-income countries. Egypt, for example, has 13 times as many excess deaths as the number officially attributed to COVID-19.

For richer OECD countries, the overall undercount is smaller, at an estimated 17%. In the United States, the estimated discrepancy was running at only 7% in March and April of this year. In July 2020, by contrast, professional estimates of the true number of US infections were 2-6 times higher than the official count.

Jeffrey Frankel
Jeffrey Frankel, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, previously served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. He directs the Program in International Finance and Macroeconomics at the US National Bureau of Economic Research, where he is a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee, the official US arbiter of recession and recovery.

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