You might not have heard of Benford’s law. It’s not so much a law, it’s really just an observation that when you get a large enough set of natural numbers, let’s say a list of all the countries in the world by population, in sets of numbers like that, the first digit is 1 much more often than you would expect. And where the numbers don’t begin with 1, the next most likely starting digit is 2, and it goes on down like that, and the least likely starting digit is 9.
So, if you look at the list of countries by population, there’s China and India in the one-point-something billion range, and there’s loads in there’s Russia, Mexico, Japan, Philippines, Bangladesh and Egypt in the one-hundred-and-something million range, but there’s only four countries in the two-hundred-and-something million range, one with three-hundred-and-something million, the United States, and that’s it.
Go lower down in the scale, and at every order of magnitude, countries whose population figure starts with a 1 are far more common, countries whose population figure starts with a 9 are much rarer. There are mathematical reasons why this is the case but they don’t matter to the point that I’m making.
Benford’s law is just one of a series of mathematical tools often used by people like forensic accountants who are trying to examine sets of figures to determine if they are true or not, because it’s surprisingly difficult for people fake a set of naturally-occurring.
This is something to bear in mind when looking at the figures from countries around the world regarding the corona virus outbreak, particularly because there could be a lot of people in the chain between figures being collected and published who are motivated to push them up or down.
A lot of other people have commented on this, particularly observing the huge variation of death rates around the world. Some badly hit countries like Italy, Spain and the UK have high fatality rates at or above 10 per cent, while other countries are down at one or two per cent. The standard explanation of this is that it’s all down to testing.
The logic of this goes that, in some countries, we’re missing a lot of infections from the figures, but not deaths, if someone dies, that gets noticed. I’m not so sure. For a start, we know that in the UK, the government was only reporting deaths that actually happened in a hospital. People who died before they got to hospital were not counted, and also left out were people who were discharged to die at home.
The Economist magazine has compared death rates in badly-hit areas of Spain and Italy, to how many people died in normal times.
In the past weeks, the total death rates have rocketed, and only a fraction of that is accounted for by the announced death rates from Covid-19. As well as the normally expected deaths, there are the Covid deaths, and on top of that there are thousands more unexpected deaths. That could be partly legitimate. Remember that the healthcare systems are overwhelmed. Right now is not a good time to have a heart attack, or get in a car wreck. It’s probably not so astonishing that people with totally unrelated medical emergencies would have a higher death rate when hospitals are clogged and doctors are working flat-out in a massive emergency.
But the jump in the death rates in some places are so gigantic that it’s difficult to believe that this explanation holds.
These unexplained deaths, that are not reported as Covid deaths, are in some cases two or three times more than the Covid-19 deaths. It’s very hard to escape the conclusion that, in these countries with already very high reported death rates, the true death rates could be, in fact, even higher.
Other concerning countries include Russia. Russia is far along in the process, it reported its first infection the day after Italy did, but as of this podcast, has only reported about five per cent of the number of cases as Italy, and about three per cent of the number of deaths. Putin has declared a national holiday – that’s a creative way of doing a lockdown – everyone is on a national holiday since March 28, and that’s due to last until April 30.
That’s fine for government employees, and employees of big firms who get paid to stay at home, but for the self-employed, and the informal economy, which accounts for most Russian employment, if they don’t work, they don’t get paid, and that’s not an option in such a poor country as Russia. From personal contacts I know that there is no real lockdown in operation, and in January Moscow health officials reported a huge surge in what they called pneumonia, before changing their minds and saying that hadn’t happened at all.
And they are not the only ones. Here’s another: Indonesia, population 264 million is reporting a tiny but steady rate of reported Covid infections and deaths. It’s a poor country that has little capacity to either conduct tests or cope with a major epidemic. But Reuters are reporting that in Jakarta, the capital, the number of funerals in March was at least 40 per cent above normal rates.
But let’s look at China. We all know the disaster in Hubei province, but it’s all under control now, right? Maybe. But there have been reports of 21m cellphone contracts being deactivated in February and March. That’s worrying because Chinese people are basically required by law to have a cellphone contract, and can only cancel it when they die. It contains their government ID, and controls access to healthcare, education and so on.
There was some comment that these missing phone contracts might indicate a huge untold death toll, but it’s not clear what portion of that 21m were the compulsory cell phones, or were secondary phones that were held by, say, migrant workers who got a second contract to avoid roaming charges while they worked outside their home network. They might have cancelled those contracts when they lost their jobs and went home because of the crisis. But we don’t know.
What we do know is the official figures from Hunan province. Hunan borders on Hubei, where everything started. Hunan province has a population of 67m. They are reporting a thousand cases, of which four people died.
Compare that to Iceland, they are reporting 1,500 cases and also exactly four deaths. But here’s the thing. Iceland has a population of about a third of a million people. And it’s far away. It’s in the North Atlantic, on the other side of the world from China. And Iceland is reporting infection and death figures that are 200 or 300 times higher.
Get that, a Chinese province right next door to the epicenter of the outbreak, but it’s reporting an infection rate three hundred times lower than an isolated rock thousands of miles away.
I think that guy Benford, he should be applying his law and having a close look at a lot of the figures that we are hearing from around the world.