Corona Diaries 12: The Illusion Of Numbers, Peaks & Plateaus

What can a person forced to stay at home possibly do? With going to office suddenly turning passé and stepping out becoming hazardous to health, those trying to break the coronavirus chain through social distancing could well revive the old tradition of writing on their diaries. In our special series, Corona Diaries, New Delhi-based senior journalist Akshaya Mishra captures the subtleties of life and the times we are in.

“Statistics are like a drunk with a lamppost: used more for support than illumination.” The quote attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister, appears apt in the context of chaos of numbers that the pandemic has unleashed. The words sound less cynical than those attributed to his predecessor separated by a century, Benjamin Disraeli, who is supposed to have said: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics”. But both point to the inadequacy of sets of numbers to reflect the truth in its entirety as well as their pliability.

Now cutting to the chase, a few questions. Do the numbers on Covid-19 illuminate us about the disease or do they confuse us more? Do they support theories that are not tenable under harsher scientific scrutiny? Numbers when controlled by governments are susceptible to manipulation. They may doctor numbers or weave false narratives around them with perfectly good intent or spurious ones. In time of a health crisis it is perhaps justified. Are we being fed with numbers that would keep our spirits high? Numbers, being numbers, are reductive and have clear limitations. They don’t grasp all dimensions, particularly the subjective ones, of the reality. Even if they are totally honest, they may still understate the reality. Do we get a definitive understanding of the pandemic looking through the prism of numbers? Here are few facts to consider.


The last these words were discussed with some intensity was in geography classes in school days ages ago. Corona has brought them back in circulation. Health experts in all countries have been speculating about Covid-19 cases hitting a peak and plateauing. Why, even US President Donald Trump announced a couple of days ago that the US has passed the peak. This despite there being no respite in number of deaths and a flood of new positive cases.

So what exactly do the words mean? The idea behind ‘peak’ is once the numbers eventually reach the highest point, it will be a steady decline thereon. ‘Plateau’ means the point from which there is no further rise. Even if deaths and fresh cases happen, they remain within a certain band for a stretch of time before declining. Frankly, neither makes logical sense. With the spread of the contagion not fully mapped yet estimates of both can only be witchcraft with data.

An opinion piece in The Guardian puts it this way: “Talk of the ‘peak’ can be misleading, because it’s not clear whether you are talking about Matterhorn or the Table Mountain — both have a summit but the peak is far more pronounced in one than the other…Worse, there maybe a mountain range. In other words, what is happening right now could be just one peak – not the peak…” The article emphasises the point that ‘this pandemic is only just getting started’ and ‘we nowhere near controlling coronavirus’.

One hopes the article is entirely off the mark, but the fact remains that ‘peaks’ and ‘plateaus’ are at best wishful constructs loaded more with hope than reason.


If the comparison of infection and casualty numbers is lulling us into the complacency that we are better placed than people in other geographies hence need no additional precaution, lets be warned: numbers can be deceptive. Statistics, the popular quote goes, are like bikinis. What they reveal is interesting, but what they conceal is crucial. In the case of corona numbers what could be staying concealed in wonderful pie diagrams, tables and infographics could be matter of life and death. What is it?

Before we go there, the troubling query: Are we comparing apples with oranges? The critical element behind the numbers we get is the number of tests. How can we compare the results of a country or state conducting, say 10,000 tests per a million population during a specific period to one conducting 500 tests in the corresponding period? Any comparison with such fundamental discrepancy can only be misleading. Excelsheet extrapolations will only throw up flawed projections because there are just too many variables in case of Covid-19.

Coming back to the question what is getting concealed, it is possibly the real picture. It may not be deliberate, but that’s how it stands.


The number of corona deaths is depressing indeed. At the time of writing this piece, it stood at more than 1,50,000 worldwide with the USA leading the chart. We don’t know the real number, but what we know for sure is the deluge of patients is far beyond the intake capacity of healthcare systems in all countries. So the numbers of the affected or dead are only those who find place in the medical records. There could be people getting affected at homes, shantytowns and elsewhere and losing the fight before being treated. That would make the numbers much higher. The same goes for the number of people with the infection but without symptoms. But let it pass; the topic is too unpleasant.

The message here is: let’s be careful about how we read the numbers. The gloomy statistics of disaster elsewhere should have a sobering impact on us. The best is to learn from the experience of others. The response of countries where the virus spread earlier could serve as a guide for India. Information is key in this battle.

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