India's coronavirus numbers continue to defy experts' projections; flattening of curve remains distant proposition

If anything can be gleaned from the repeatedly dashed hopes and predictions of experts, is that the aphorism 'all models are wrong but some models are useful' rings particularly true in the case of coronavirus.

FP Staff May 07, 2020 14:11:05 IST
India's coronavirus numbers continue to defy experts' projections; flattening of curve remains distant proposition

For the past two months, NITI Aayog members have been predicting that the number of positive COVID-19 cases are stabilising and that the government lockdown has successfully "flattened the curve."

The most recent instance of this came on Sunday, when VK Paul, a member of the think-tank, said the continuous rise in the number of people testing positive for coronavirus is expected to stabilise "anytime soon". Paul also stated that India is nowhere close to the kind of escalation of coronavirus cases that it witnessed during the pre-lockdown phase.

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“In the pre-lockdown stage, we were doubling our number of cases in every five days. Before that even at every 3 days. Now, we are doubling in 11 to 12 days. So, overall the rate of spread has diminished but yes the number still has not stabilised. But we expect it to stabilise any time soon,” Paul said.

But data on the spread of COVID-19 shows the coronavirus has a long history of defying experts' predictions and models.

Just today, economist Shamika Ravi, previously part of the prime minister's Economic Advisory Council, put up data on her Twitter account showing the number of active COVID-19 cases actually grew faster at 6.8 percent with a doubling time of 11 days compared to 4.8 percent with a doubling time of 15 days. Ravi said the trend is driven by rising concerns in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Gujarat, Delhi and Tamil Nadu, where the infection is "at worrying rates, mortality rates are increasing and there is no specific strategy for testing and contact tracing".

Indias coronavirus numbers continue to defy experts projections flattening of curve remains distant proposition

Representational image .AP

And on Tuesday, the Union health ministry reported the highest single-day spurt  in a 24-hour span with 3,900 cases and  195 fatalities. Joint Secretary, Health, Lav Agarwal, speaking about the new figures at a press briefing, said it is the highest increase noted in the number of cases and deaths” in 24 hours.

NITI Aayog experts miss mark

In fact, this isn't even the first time Paul, or other members of the NITI Aayog, have completely missed the mark when it comes to talking about the coronavirus.

Earlier in April, Paul expressed optimism while unveiling a study that suggested that the lockdown had slowed the rate of transmission and increased the doubling time, the period it took for cases to double, to about 10 days and predicted that there would be no new COVID-19 cases after 16 May.

In fact, one of the members of Paul's committee, speaking to The Hindu on condition of anonymity, said his claim was "highly unlikely." The member told the newspaper there would have to be declines in Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal, all fuelling the increase in numbers, for the national average to decline.

“So far there is no such evidence of a decline. So I don’t know the basis of that forecast. We are planning, in terms of keeping ventilators, beds, ICU facilities ready on the assumption that this will last much longer,” the member told The Hindu.

And with good reason. While the study projected that India would hit its peak on 3 May, adding slightly above 1,500 cases a day, which would then reduce to 1,000 cases on 12 May and hit zero by 16 May, India  actually saw six straight days of over 2,000 cases since 1 May, with a peak of 3,932 cases on 4 May.

Also in April, NITI Aayog chief executive Amitabh Kant, speaking after India registered its 1,000th coronavirus death, said, "Our analysis finds that the rate of growth in positive cases and fatalities has been consistently lower: linear but non-exponential."

Eminent scientist VK Saraswat, another member of NITI Aayog, claimed in mid-April that the country was in the process of "flattening the curve" and that the government's lockdown had paid dividends. "I can only say that the rate is not going to go beyond what has been going on now, maybe 700 to 800 cases per day," Saraswat was quoted as saying by PTI.

Predictions fall flat

Other expert predictions have also fallen flat. The Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), using Artificial Intelligence-driven data analysis at the end of April, estimated that the COVID-19 crisis would  end in India around 21 May. As per the university's website, calculating the data-driven estimates, the susceptible-infected-recovered (SIR) model is regressed based on the data from different countries to estimate the key dates of transition during the pandemic life cycle curve across the globe.

The university further predicted the end date for the United States around 11 May, while the crisis in Iran would end around 10 May. As of today, the United States and Iran have seen 74,809 and 6,418 deaths respectively. Disease experts in the United States, which is gearing up to reopen, have predicted as many as 200,000 cases per day with the daily toll touching 3,000 on 1 June and anywhere from 1,00,000 to 1,30,000 total deaths in the country by August.

Italy, whose end date for COVID-19 was predicted as today, saw a rise both in the number of deaths (369) and a jump in new daily infections (1,444) even as the number of active cases dropped from 98,467 yesterday to 91,528 today. Italy is the second-worst affected country by coronavirus in Europe. The university also predicted 8 December as the day the COVID-19 crisis would abate worldwide.

And in March, News18 reported that scientists examining the pandemic said India had "entered a crucial phase" in curbing the spread of disease as numbers climb steadily, and offered two distinct scenarios: success in containing the disease like in China or an outbreak that could stress the country's health system.

“If we assume the disease will progress like China and if we can implement a strong self-quarantine with social distancing successfully, just like the Chinese did — which means we will be able to yield the Chinese success in India — then we can assume about 415 cases by April 15,” Sourish Das, associate professor at the Chennai Mathematical Institute, told News18.

“In the worst-case scenario, if we fail to control the progression of the disease, and go on the Italian way, we can expect more than 3,500 cases by 15 April,” Das warned, adding that it is unlikely to touch so many cases considering India’s younger demographic. “I strongly believe an Italian scenario is very unlikely. Because the average age in Italy is 45,  one of the highest in the EU. On the other hand, the average age in India is 28, one of the lowest in the world.”

Unfortunately, the 'extremely unlikely' scenario, one three times worse than the worst-case scenario envisaged by Das, came to pass. By 15 April, India had registered 12,370 cases and 422 deaths.

If anything can be gleaned from the repeatedly dashed hopes and predictions of experts, is that the aphorism "all models are wrong but some models are useful" rings particularly true in the case of coronavirus.

Updated Date:

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