How to understand – and report – figures for ‘Covid deaths’

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Every day, now, we are seeing figures for ‘Covid deaths’. These numbers are often expressed on graphs showing an exponential rise. But care must be taken when reading (and reporting) these figures. Given the extraordinary response to the emergence of this virus, it’s vital to have a clear-eyed view of its progress and what the figures mean. The world of disease reporting has its own dynamics, ones that are worth understanding. How accurate, or comparable, are these figures comparing Covid-19 deaths in various countries?

We often see a ratio expressed: deaths, as a proportion of cases. The figure is taken as a sign of how lethal Covid-19 is, but the ratios vary wildly. In the US, 1.8 per cent (2,191 deaths in 124,686 confirmed cases), Italy 10.8 per cent, Spain 8.2 per cent, Germany 0.8 per cent, France 6.1 per cent, UK 6.0 per cent. A fifteen-fold difference in death rate for the same disease seems odd amongst such similar countries: all developed, all with good healthcare systems. All tackling the same disease.

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