“Lies, damned lies and statistics”. The phrase is often used to show that numbers have a persuasive power but when presented selectively they have the power to mislead. In his recent address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi quoted some statistics to explain how India is managing the coronavirus pandemic better than many developed countries. The PM stated that India has 5,500 cases per 10 lakh (million) as compared to 25,000 cases per million in the US and Brazil.

He further said that in India, the death rate at per million population is 83 whereas, in countries such as the US, UK and Brazil, the number is over 600.

PM Modi then went on to add that we have conducted close to 10 crore tests. He used these numbers to arrive at the conclusion that India is doing very well and has been more successful in saving the lives of its citizens.

With over 7.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, India is the second worst-hit country after the United States. However, to take into account the population size, when comparing across countries, PM Modi rightly considered cases per million rather than absolute numbers. But why use rate per million for a number of cases and deaths but the absolute number for tests? Why pick only the US, UK and Brazil for comparison? Why not other countries in the region? Why not the global average or the Asian average? These are questions that obviously have uncomfortable answers.

Cases per million

In terms of cases per million, India’s number of 5,544 is above the world average of 5,241 and Asian average of 2,764. While India is far below the US, UK and Brazil, it is above other countries in the region.

Worldometer reports COVID-19 cases in 215 countries and India’s position is 131 i.e. there are 130 countries that have lower and 84 that have higher cases per million. Apart from our immediate neighbours, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia are some Asian countries that have lower cases per million as compared to India but the Prime Minister picked two countries with higher rates to conclude that India is doing a better job of controlling the pandemic.

Deaths per million

When it comes to deaths per million, India’s 84 compares favourably with the global average of 144 but is higher than the Asian average of 49. While countries like the US, UK and Brazil record significantly more deaths per million than India, the death rate in India is higher than other countries in the region.

Out of 215 countries with recorded data, India stands at 134 with 133 countries reporting a lower death rate. PM Modi’s claim that India is doing far better at saving the lives of its citizens can’t be substantiated with this data.

Tests per thousand

For a populous country like India, absolute numbers can give a misleading picture therefore when comparing with others, we look at cases per million and deaths per million. The same holds true for tests as well and we should look at tests per thousand if we want to compare with others. In this case, however, PM Modi shared the absolute number of tests and not tests per thousand. As can be seen from the graph below, both US and UK have conducted far larger tests per thousand as compared to India. Brazil has conducted fewer tests per thousand as compared to India. However, the US and UK have more confirmed cases and are also testing far more than India.

It is clear that data has been quoted selectively to drive the narrative that India is doing better than others in managing the pandemic. Comparing India to other Asian and South Asian countries does not paint such a rosy picture. If the confirmed cases and deaths per million are compared with countries like the US and UK, COVID-19 testing should also be reported in relation to the population and compared with the same countries.

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