As a Humanities student in a household full of Engineers, I have often had the Letters vs. Numbers debate. I always lost. Our whole society functions under a belief in Science and facts – things that can be proven. Someone’s word is never enough. In a certain way, numbers have become our new religion.

I believed in it too. I enjoyed the flexibility and subjectivity of my History and Literature essays but often envied the ‘simplicity’ of STEM subjects, where problems only had one right answer. However, the current pandemic has made me realize for the first time that numbers can be and are constantly manipulated, and we should not rely so blindly on them.

In a way, Science has becomed our new religion

Like many people, I am sure, I have been closely following COVID-19. It is pretty much the only topic being covered in newspapers at the moment. In particular, I have followed the famous curve that we so desperately need to flatten and checked its progress day by day, comparing different countries. The fact that I study in the UK but have my family in Spain allowed me to see how two different countries reacted to the pandemic and the numbers that they provided.

After being advised by my university to return to Madrid, I started receiving messages from many of my UK friends, worried about me and my family. ‘I hear that things are really bad over there’ they would say. ‘Well, aren’t they everywhere?’ I would think to myself. I would then turn on the news and hear the presenter state that  ‘Spain is the country that has suffered more COVID-19 deaths in relation to the size of their population’. And my question is: Are we?

“We don´t know where on the curve we are” said Francisco Moreno, head of internal medicine at Mexico City’s ABC Hospital.

I do not by any chance want to minimize the gravity of the situation that we are currently living. This is a horrible time and my country has been suffering incredibly. The fact that I find myself celebrating that yesterday there were ONLY 637 deaths is appalling. However, these statements and statistics are indeed relying on information that, when contrasted and researched, raises some questions.

For example, China’s mobile phone users have dropped by 21 million, making their COVID-19 casualty rates suspicious (3,331). Germany only counts COVID-19 as the cause of death if patients do not have other medical conditions, and France and Spain do not include patients that die outside the hospital nor make autopsies to certify the cause of death. Italy and South Korea have done enormous testing efforts, which have resulted in very high infection rates, particularly in comparison to countries that limit testing, such as Venezuela, who only tests people that have traveled internationally or have had contact with a confirmed infection. In fact, the rise of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Tokyo after the announcement of the delay of the Olympics has been considered suspicious by some media outlets. Nigeria identified in March over 200 people that were in contact with the first coronavirus patient in the country but only tested 33.

At the end of the day, calculations are made by people, and people make mistakes

Francisco Moreno, the head of internal medicine at Mexico City‘s ABC Hospital said that he feels like he is “walking blindly through the woods” because “the official number of cases isn’t real. We don’t know where on the curve we are.”

Most healthcare authorities across the globe are advising people that are symptomatic but do not have difficulty breathing to stay at home. This is a wise decision taken to keep hospitals from overflowing, but it directly affects the way that we put together infection statistics.

The infection rates and recovery statistics are the most affected by the advice to stay at home. The lack of testing and the fact that the virus acts affects people differently makes it likely that there are a lot more people infected that the numbers that we see on TV, but also that a lot more people are “cured” than those in official statistics. I know several people that had all the symptoms of the virus and were not tested because they did not need hospitalization. Healthcare systems are focusing on those people whose lives are at risk and that is important and necessary. However, it also means that the recoveries of people who stay at home while being sick are not included in statistics. The same goes for people that were asymptomatic and have no way of knowing if they have had the virus or not.

Numbers can be and are constantly manipulated, and we should not rely so blindly on them.

“Cases are bound to fall through the cracks,” stated David Flora, chief resident at a Caracas’ hospital. “And those cases that we skip create new cases that don’t meet the criteria either.”

We need to assume the flaws of the new myth that we have created: Science. Particularly Science as an all-knowing discipline. Just as we do with facts that we read and hear online, we need to contrast numbers. Because scientific knowledge can easily be manipulated, and statistics can very easily favor the person that created them. We need and should use Science, but without worshiping it.

At the end of the day, calculations are made by people, and there is no point in trusting numbers if you don’t trust the minds that obtain those results.

  • Beatriz Valero de Urquía

    Beatriz Valero de Urquia is a historian, writer and journalist. She graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2020 and spends her time between Spain and the UK reading, listening to musicals and writing her first novel.