CAN the reported number of Covid-19 cases be manipulated? Is it being done?

The short answer to the first question is, yes. For the second question, you get to decide after looking at the data. But whichever way you vote, there can be no argument against keeping politics out of Covid-19 – that is absolutely essential for success in beating back the pandemic.

Given the constantly high number of daily Covid-19 cases, it is not at all surprising that the movement control order (MCO) has been extended. But what is surprising is that the numbers have stayed steadily well above 5,000 infections per day despite a lockdown of nearly four weeks. Why is that?

What the strict MCO over four weeks has done is severely restrict movement within the community, but daily infections are still resistant to moving below the 5,000 figure. That is a clear indication that the source is elsewhere than the broad community – perhaps factories and the manufacturing sector, which are still allowed to operate? Some are pointing to easy approvals for some industries to open.

The first problem is that the data to identify the exact sources of infections is not readily available. If the government breaks down the sources of infections and categorises them into broad sectors, such as manufacturing, and smaller sectors – services and sectoral breakdowns, community, and so on – then we will get a better handle of how the pandemic is panning out and know where to target prevention. Why can we not have a daily table for this?

Lack of data does not inspire confidence; in fact, it erodes it considerably as people grasp at plausible explanations without hard evidence. It leads to needless speculation, conjecture and even panic, hindering the fight against the pandemic.

The other problem is inconsistent testing patterns. There is but only one way to determine the daily number of Covid-19 cases – testing. The greater and the more dispersed the testing for Covid-19 cases, the more accurately the figures are likely to reflect the actual situation on the ground.

Everywhere, the number of actual Covid-19 cases is actually much higher than the reported figures, which are based on testing, but the accuracy of the reported figures increases the greater the number of people tested and with the spread of testing.

If you compare (see the charts) daily new Covid-19 cases and daily Covid-19 tests per 1,000 people, you will find a striking positive correlation between the number of new cases and those tested. For some inexplicable reason, the testing rate has fallen and may well have contributed entirely to the fall in Covid-19 cases.

This is highly alarming, implying that Covid-19 numbers are not coming down because of the lockdown. It deserves a full explanation by the authorities.

For a good discussion on these factors, go to this article.

Another important figure to consider is the percentage of those tested who turn out to be Covid-19-positive, known as the positive rate. In Malaysia, it now hovers around 7% – seven out of 100 individuals tested are positive.

Experts consider that a declining positive rate indicates the pandemic is being brought under control. Despite the lockdown of four weeks, that is not showing yet. They also consider that the positive rate needs to fall below 5% to between 1% and 3% before it can be deemed that progress has been made.

The other thing that is in question is the vaccination roll-out rate. It is pretty clear that we lack vaccines, which indicates that we should have put far greater effort into securing the vaccines at the lowest cost earlier and faster.

For this, a special purpose vehicle (SPV) should have been established comprising reputable medical professionals and corporate administrators. This SPV’s sole purpose would have been to obtain the right vaccines cheaply and quickly, bypassing all middlemen, and efficiently distribute them nationwide, at the least cost.

If this had been done properly, then we would not have arguments now about vaccine supplies and costs, with some states not getting enough vaccines. This delay has put us behind Asia and the world on average in terms of the share of people who have received vaccinations (see chart).

The vaccination rate has accelerated due to vaccine availability in recent months, but still lags far behind leading countries in Europe and North America. The vaccination rate should be rapidly ramped up to exhaust current supply, so that when new supply comes in, it can be rapidly administered, with the spare capacity freed up.

Signs are that the vaccination of those on the priority list, who are slated to get the jab early, is being delayed, as new categories of people are prioritised over and above senior citizens and those with medical conditions, for instance.

This is really not the time to be playing favourites and shifting priorities around. Instead, all efforts should be focused on vaccinating at least 80% of the population – currently, the only sure way available of getting back to a semblance of normalcy, with Covid-19 set to be with us for some time yet.

And is it not time we formulated some plans for how we are going to live with Covid-19 for an indefinite period of time in terms of standard operating procedures, precautions and other measures? Or are we also going to leave that kind of planning until things are a bit too late?

Lastly, but most importantly, all politicians – from both the government and opposition – need to put their differences aside and, instead, fight for the common good of all Malaysians.

The people in government have an especially heavy responsibility because they are the ones making ultimate decisions to ensure inherent biases, such as needlessly prolonging the emergency either by doing too little or fudging up the numbers, are scrupulously avoided.

At all times, any responsible government will not succumb to gambling with the people’s lives. To promote such confidence, it should let respected members of the opposition into the decision-making process and give all necessary data to everyone to make informed, rational choices. This is especially so in an emergency that gives enormous power to the government.

This is the minimum necessary to get a handle on the Covid-19 pandemic and take the right decisions in this direction. By its very nature, this government needs to work extra hard to do this and ensure that it does not incur the eternal wrath of a people caused to needlessly suffer with their lives and livelihood because of compromised, conflicted decisions.

Take heed, government leaders, let’s not play politics with Covid-19, it is a matter of life and death. – The Vibes, June 29, 2021

P. Gunasegaram hopes that basic decency prevails during these difficult times, with leaders looking way beyond just their own noses. He is editorial consultant at The Vibes and chief executive of research and advocacy organisation Sekhar Institute