The Trouble with Statistics: COVID-19 Update, August 2022

So, in a world where millions still argue whether the COVID-19 virus even exists, and reports also contend that in some countries (most often cited being India) the number of cases is conservatively estimated to be at least ten times the reported number, the official tally has quietly risen above 600,000,000 global cases. I say quietly, because nobody really seemed to notice, very much unlike a couple of years ago when a comparative handful of people got sick, a few died, everyone went nuts, and much of the planet basically closed for business.

This officially recognized and reported tally is collated and overseen by Johns Hopkins University in the United States, which also tracks the global population estimate (very soon to reach 8 billion). Statistics are a funny thing, and can be used and misused in any number of ways for all kinds of reasons. A simple enough examination of the official numbers however (calculator in hand) reveals that these oft-cited figures are dubious and under-reported at best, and practically pointless at worst. This of course is NOT any fault of the good people at Johns Hopkins, who are able to collate only the figures they have been fed from 230 countries, territories, and cruise ships.

Statistical analysis (staring at endless columns of numbers and/or squiggly things) is stupefyingly boring (a fact the world’s media organizations understand very well, and rely on in order to spin numbers any way they please) so in the interest of levity, I have unearthed some interesting little snippets of trivia which you have my blessing to share with friends at the next dinner party… if you happen to be the sort of person who goes to those kinds of parties.

First, some global figures (as of August 24, 2022). The population is 7.97 billion. Total reported COVID-19 cases number 602 million. Deaths are approaching 6.5 million. Of all of us, 7.5% have caught the virus, with a mortality rate of 1.08%. Global deaths from/with the virus currently total 0.08% (or 1 death for every 1,230 people). I say from/with the virus because, in all honesty, the vast majority of deaths have occurred in elderly sufferers, and to be perfectly blunt, people in their 80s and 90s do have a tendency sometimes to, well… die.

The Safest People to Be

Okay, let’s keep this brief. Far and away, officially speaking, you have far greater chances of avoiding any contact with, or death from, COVID-19 if you are: a Gulf Arab, a Communist (or residing guest thereof), or African.

First to our friends in the five remaining (ostensibly) communist nations, being China, Cuba, Lao(s), North Korea and Vietnam.

Those wacky* communists have proven their resilience yet again, with COVID cases affecting only 1.1% of their almost 1.6 billion people (seven times better than the global average). China, where all this began, remains outstanding in its response, finding cases in just 0.016% of all residents (a very impressive 471 times better than average)!

Perhaps most outstanding though are some of the numbers coming out of the inexplicable entity that is North Korea. Until May 11, 2022, the total recorded number of cases coming out of the Hermit Kingdom was precisely zero. Then, no doubt due to some dirty foreigner, there was an explosion of cases (over 4.7 million in two months) before the virus was just as suddenly and inexplicably cured. Since the end of July, not a single case has been reported in North Korea. The impoverished nation’s mortality rate of 0.0015%, with 74 recorded deaths remains by far the world’s lowest (720 times better than the global average).

A North Korean masterclass in bullshit. Image: Worldometer, Johns Hopkins University, August 24, 2022.

*While attempting to keep a subject as dull as statistical research as light and fluffy as possible, this writer has nothing against the people of these or any other countries. I’ve been to four of these five and would still love to visit Cuba one day.

Now to Africa! It would be a monumental and ultimately silly idea to attempt to condense a huge continent of 54 countries (Africa is much, much bigger than what we learned from those Mercator maps that somehow still exist today – you know, the ones that also make Greenland roughly the size of the moon – but I’m not getting into colonial politics here). The continent is home to 16.7 percent of the world’s people and growing RAPIDLY.

Sometimes we can learn a lot from what we don’t see, and Africa (yet again) is a good, if worrying example of that. According to the official statistics, only eight of these 54 nations make the unenviable list of the 100 countries (for cases). South Africa (#37) is the only African nation in the top 50. The others are Morocco (56), Tunisia (61), Egypt (89), Libya (90), Ethiopia (91), Kenya (99) and Zambia (100). All other African nations have registered less than Zambia’s 332,000 cases.

Combined, these eight countries have a population of 421 million people. They have registered 8.6 million COVID cases which, at 2% of the population is far lower than the global average. The mortality rate however, at 2.3% is more than double.

These figures above apply of course only to those eight countries with the highest recorded number of cases. Some other numbers also bear a bit of a look. Nigeria for example, one of the world’s most populous nations, has registered 263,000 cases, 0.04% of the world’s total or a tiny 1.6% of the global case average. The mortality rate is around the same as the global average, but Nigeria’s 3,148 registered COVID deaths from its population of 217 million equal just one death for every 69,000 people.

Some have pointed out the importance of recognizing demographic differences, such as the resilience of youth to COVID-19 (Nigerians over 65 comprise only 2.75% of the population, where the median age is 18.1 years – at the other end of this spectrum Japan shows very different COVID statistics) but these numbers still don’t add up. Nigeria has given 5.4 million COVID tests, enough for 2.5% of the population (if everyone received just one test, so the real numbers are far lower).

Okay, so finally, having begun in the Far East, and that frightening little peninsula constantly threatening to annihilate us with its nuclear weapons and K-pop, we move over to the Middle East, and the world’s biggest peninsula. The Arabian one.

Here in the seven peninsula States (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen), the numbers are slightly different again. Like Africa, none of these countries feature at the top of the list of reported COVID cases, with UAE the highest (#68) recording just over one million. With a small combined number of reported cases (almost 3.6 million) there are an even smaller number of deaths, at a surprisingly low 22,800. The official mortality rate for these seven Arab countries is 0.63%, far lower than the global average of 1.08%. There could be some simple reasons for such small numbers of COVID cases and deaths here. Let’s take the Sultanate of Oman, for example.

Oman has a global solution to the COVID crisis. Periodically, just stop testing and reporting. Easy. Image: Worldometer, Johns Hopkins University, August 24, 2022.

Oman, in its own very relaxed way (and it is a very deliberately chill, under the radar kind of place) alleviated the concerns of citizens and residents in typically uncomplicated style. Its small number of cases can be easily identified as having something to do with the fact that whenever people start becoming a bit worried, the authorities just stop testing and reporting. In the last six months since February 25, Oman has recorded a total of 17,535 cases of the virus (Australia, where I sit has reported roughly that number today). More impressive still, Oman has not registered a single COVID death in the 100 days since May 15. Everything there seemed to just… stop. For over three months the number of deaths has been 4,260. Assisting with this remarkable effort could possibly be that the nation also officially issued the surprisingly lazy reportage of having administered exactly 25,000,000 COVID tests (sometimes Oman may be a bit too relaxed), and then, apparently pleased with that number, again just… stopped. Oman has not reported testing anyone for COVID-19 for months.

If this set of Arab Peninsula statistics sounds quite good, and you feel like relocating, it gets even better! Well, it gets better for some. These impressive figures include those of Yemen, which, already dealing with starvation and war, also own an horrific official COVID-19 mortality rate of 18.07%.

Spare a thought for the people of Yemen. And on that sombre note…

Thanks for making it to the end.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Stu, you really do write one of the best blogs out there. Just FYI, I continue reading it because it’s good, not because you’re a friend.

  2. China, yes, but S.Koreans and N. Korea aren’t in contact with each other so how would that factor in with their numbers?

    • You’re right Diisha! I thought about that after I wrote… inter-Korean transmission is maybe the most unlikely anywhere, though the Yalu river border to China remains porous as always. A friend in the middle east pointed out that other countries aren’t reporting on this either. Real numbers just can’t be crunched.

  3. Hi Stu & all – Same line of thought as Diisha, that North Korea is so isolated that it’s probably quite safe in comparison to places where people are allowed to move to and fro; and then, with the mention of the Middle East, I wanted to share that (just to be cruel to myself and see what I am missing), I continue to get emails from the Royal Muscat Opera House and they have ended the season early; no more public tours or concerts this year.

    • Hi Diana, good to hear from you! I take your point about North Korea, which is relatively isolated, but it isn’t hermetically sealed (I’ve been there), and there is apparently a lot of cross-border black market trading with the Chinese. How’s everything at your end these days?

  4. The problem with any numbers is the reporting. Here in the U.S. they have decided that even if they suspect the virus they are to count it as a virus death. How can one trust any number that includes pneumonia, influenza, heart attack and virtually any respiratory failure as a death caused by the virus. They do this because they are directed to and also because they are paid $12,500 extra for a virus caused death.

    • I’m not sure where to even start with this (your numbers are all wrong (many, many more people die of all those other things you mention) and I have no idea who is the ‘they’ who are getting paid well to kill people) but fear not, I’m updating this presently!

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