A Better Way To Read India's Rising COVID-19 Numbers

How is the pandemic panning out in the world's second most populous country? Science editor for The Wire, Vasudevan Mukunth, offers some statistical insight.

A woman and her daughter wait to get tested for the coronavirus.
A woman and her daughter wait to get tested for the coronavirus.
Vasudevan Mukunth

BENGALURU — The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to get comfortable with an array of numbers and glut of statistical methods. But of the three numbers that governments and the media use to convey the extent of the virus' spread — the total number of cases, the number of active cases, and the number of new cases daily — it is the first number that grabs most headlines.

Last week, on July 16, India's total tally of COVID-19 cases hit the 1 million mark. But since 0.63 million of those are cured, the total number of active cases is 343,000.

So why do we speak about the total number of cases? One reason is that the total number of COVID-19 infections is a way to understand the spread of the virus through the total (susceptible) population until a specific point of time.

If epidemiologists, based on the virus' reproductive ratio (R0), have a broad sense of how many people in the country will eventually get infected, then the total number of cases can tell us — at a glance — how close or far we are from it. To be sure, this is an inexact science. Predictions for India range from 10 million to 150 million total infections by the time the pandemic ends.

Since the rising total number of cases counts as bad news, the government in India has focused its "good news' messaging on the total number of recovered patients, which is also rising. But this absolute number (or even the percentage of total cases that are cured as of now) tells us nothing about when the tide was turned, since active cases continue to rise.

Because an epidemic officially peaks when the number of new cases starts to fall, the day-wise gap between the number of new active cases and the number of recoveries can convey a better sense of when India will begin to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Since an epidemic officially peaks when the number of new cases starts to fall, the day-wise gap between the number of new active cases and the number of recoveries can convey a better sense of when India will begin to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Data from the Union health ministry makes this point clearly:


The gap will effectively close when India hits its peak, i.e. when the blue line of new daily cases starts to dip and then intersects a (by then) more steeply inclined green line of new daily recoveries. But as the data shows, the gap has only widened since the country's four-phase lockdown concluded.

To get a better sense of the disease's all-India march at the current time, therefore, this graph is a better indication of the road that lies ahead than the total number of cases and total number of recoveries. But like the all-India total, this graph does not capture the spatial variation so crucial to the spread of the virus.

Why? Because different parts of the country are at markedly different stages of their respective epidemics. Thus, the total (and daily) number of cases, recoveries, active cases and new infections can give us a misleading picture when we look at regional, state-level data.

For example, now that India's COVID-19 epidemic is nearing sub-national status, India reaching 1 million cases doesn't reveal the hyper-localized addition of new cases, and separately recoveries. Put another way, the forest of cases is now too large for us to discern the health and wellbeing of different patches based on forest-level data.

But then why should the gap between the number of new cases on a day-to-day basis versus the number of new recoveries be any different? It isn't, except in one important way: The total number of cases includes those who have already recovered or died, whereas the gap denotes only the present, so to speak.

That is, while the total number of cases continuously becomes a poorer reflection of India's exact situation in both space and time, the gap becomes so only in space.

To understand the present situation, and the future to a limited extent, the national daily gap between new infections and new recoveries is more useful. It won't tell us how a specific state is doing but it will be more specific to the current status of healthcare, R0, mortality, etc.

In any case, we have enough data to plot the daily gap of new infections and recoveries for each state. As we can see below, Delhi is doing better than Karnataka.



On the other hand, the total number of cases tells us neither how specific states might be doing nor how India is doing right now, since the metric is skewed by past data. Put another way, the gap is more sensitive to the prevailing situation than the total number of cases.

In the last half decade, India must have had about 10 million tuberculosis cases, but such a number doesn't feature in today's medical and healthcare narratives.

And when the total number of cases is an order of magnitude higher than the number of active cases, and two orders higher than the number of new cases daily, its sensitivity to the present is bound to be quite weak. That is, the addition of 30,000 new cases will increase India's total number of cases from 1 million to 1.03 million, an entirely marginal difference.

A healthcare worker collects swabs for COVID-19 tests at a screening center in Guwahati, Assam, India— Photo: David Talukdar

This is also why epidemics that have gone on for longer — such as those of tuberculosis and HIV — no longer care for the total number of cases. For example, in the last half decade, India must have had about 10 million tuberculosis cases, but such a number doesn't feature in today's medical and health care narratives. Diarrhea (due to various causes) is another example. India is likely to have had a few billion cases in the last decade, but nobody cares because this figure is meaningless.

The scale of India's COVID-19 epidemic on many counts pales in comparison to India's tuberculosis epidemic, but then again the COVID-19 epidemic has become, or is approaching, sub-nationality — the way tuberculosis has been for many years now. So let's keep an eye on the total number of cases, but have a closer watch on the width of the gap.

For example, it will be hard to challenge the central government if it decides to impose one more lockdown now and emerges from it later claiming the total number of cases increased only marginally in percentage terms, and therefore the lockdown was a success. But the gap — free from the normalizing pressures of historical trends — could prove the government quickly wrong.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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