Britain may be reaching the peak of its Coronavirus outbreak, with the total number of coronavirus-related hospital deaths reaching 11,329.
On Sunday, as the count surpassed 10,000, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, remarked that it was a “sombre day”. The nation will share his sentiments. The death of one person, let alone thousands, is a tragedy – a reflection of how contagious this disease is.
And the release of this terrible figure duly sparked immediate anger on social media, with many blaming the Government for the death toll.
Some pounced on the words of Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, who claimed on The Andrew Marr Show that “the UK is likely to be certainly one of the worst, if not the worst affected country in Europe”.
Taken in isolation, the UK’s figures look bleak compared to those others. And there is no getting away from the fact that the amount of lives lost is over 11,000 – a dire total that will not even be definitive.
But even so, it is naive and wrong to suggest that interventions could have magicked away the staggering impact of the Coronavirus. The media should not have carte blanche to claim the UK is the worst country in Europe – as many outlets have implied throughout the Coronavirus crisis.
The only way of pushing such a narrative is to remove context and nuance from the data. Anyone with common sense knows there are reasons why countries exhibit different statistics – quite apart from their governments.
To state the obvious, there are variations across population size, population density, demographics (age, ethnicity, gender) and climates. These have to be woven into the debate if we are to achieve a mature dialogue and find a sensible way forward.
One factor that is especially important in understanding the Coronavirus is population density, which speeds up the transmission of the disease. The more people living in one space, the more get it.
The UK is at a disadvantage in this regard; 727 of people per square mile and 83 per cent living in urban areas. Comparatively, Ireland has 186 people per square mile and 63 per cent living in urban areas. So one can begin to understand why it has suffered 8,928 cases and 320 deaths, next to Britain’s 78,991 cases and 9,875 deaths.
This pattern extends to other countries. Germany and France, for instance, have lower population densities (623 and 309 people per square mile, respectively) and less people living in urban areas (76 per cent and 81.5 per cent respectively).
Another disadvantage for the UK is that its capital, where the outbreak has been most virulent, is the largest city in Europe, with a population of almost nine million. Berlin and Paris have 3.7 million and 2.1 million, respectively – so this is yet another reason why their statistics will vary.
Furthermore, there’s the aspect of age. Considering that the virus disproportionately kills older people, it follows that countries with more elderly populations will be worse impacted.
This helps to explain why Italy has one of the worst death rates, as the average age of those tested positive for the Coronavirus was 62: compare that to South Korea, where a third of infected cases were people aged 30 or under. The majority of Germany’s infections have been people aged 15 to 59, which helps to account for its low death rate.
Even gender has a role in statistics, with women more likely to survive the virus. So one can expect this to impact negatively on countries that have higher male populations. Other factors such as the timing of the epidemic, compliance of citizens (some countries are worse at following a lockdown) and how sociable a nation is play a role in its infection rates. The list goes on and on and on… and these factors have to be “controlled” for in statistical analyses.
Another major, secondary consideration to understanding death rates is how these are recorded. There is not simply “one correct way” to measure death. Some of these methods are demonstrated by John Hopkins University, which measures “deaths per 100,000 of the population” and “observed case-fatality ratio”.
Here, the methods of countries start to vary. When measured per 100,000, the UK death rate is lower than that off Spain, Belgium, Italy and France, but above that of Netherlands, US, Germany, Iran and China (though we can probably discount the latter two). By way of contrast, on observed “case-fatality rate”, the UK looks one of the worst. This brings us onto another point.
Testing plays a unique function in how death rates appear – a role which is sometimes forgotten, with some believing Germany has performed a miracle (on the basis of having one of the best ratios).
But here’s the deal: countries that test more will have better “case-fatality ratios”. This is because they detect a broader range of the Coronavirus, picking up many mild cases, and that brings the infections to death ratio down. The UK, which only tests in hospitals, will only detect the most severe cases – which are more likely to result in death. Therefore, our ratio is worse, and we have no idea of overall survival rates.
In conclusion, people have to understand that counting the number of deaths is only one way in which potentially to measure the rate – and that other ways might help to contextualise infections, controlling for the fact that some countries have much higher and more cooped up populations, and all the other variables that inhibit, or facilitate, the Coronavirus spread.
We are still in the infancy of this crisis, and it remains unknown which country will have turned out to have adopted the best plan. The UK figures, as those around the world, are disturbing, and causing huge pain. It is conceivable that the Government’s strategy was flawed, and it has big questions to answer.
But too much of this crisis has felt like an extension of the Brexit wars, with some people determined to find fault in the UK. They say that they want the Government to be honest with them. But each time MPs have levelled about the severity of the disease and its outcomes – which can’t all be mitigated – they receive enormous backlash.
This pandemic should not be turned into a morbid global competition. Now is the time to learn from our European brothers and sisters, not sensationalise statistics to further divide an anguished nation.