Number theory: No cause for alarm on Covid outbreak, says data
Is there another Covid-19 outbreak in India? How alarming is the situation, if at all? Here are some charts that try to explain this in detail.
On Monday, the Union ministry of health conducted a meeting with states and UTs to review preparedness for Covid-19 management. This was the third time in the past two weeks that top officials have warned states against a rise in infections. So is this another Covid-19 outbreak? How alarming is the situation, if at all? Here are some charts that try to explain this in detail.
1. New cases are rising, but have to be seen in context
For the week ended March 27, there were an average of 1,471 new infections reported daily. Exactly a week ago, this number was 808. This means there has been an 82% increase in the daily case rate. While this appears high, these numbers should be seen in context with two things in mind.
First is the size of India's population. According to health ministry data, there are 10,981 active cases of Covid-19 across India right now. This translates to just eight people currently infected with Covid for every 1 million Indians. At its peak, India saw more than 3.75 million active cases (during the second wave in May 2021) - translating to around 2,800 active infections for every million residents.
Second, the low-base makes the weekly case growth rate (81%) appear far more alarming than it is. With under 1,500 daily infections, the current outbreak only appears significant because the past two months have seen numbers that are largely negligible - in the first week of February, average daily cases dropped to under 100 for the first time since the pandemic broke. In fact, current numbers are considerably lower than even levels seen during lulls between waves. In mid-2022, for instance, India's average case rate jumped to around 20,000 a day, but that period was not even considered a full-blown wave - offering some much-needed perspective on the numbers being witnessed right now.
2. Positivity rate is also rising, but here context matters even more
Another figure that has found itself in several headlines lately is the positivity rate. When looked at in isolation, it appears to be rising on average 1.5% of all samples tested in the country have turned out positive for Covid-19 in the past week. This was 1% a week ago, and 0.6% the week before that. But here also two factors need to be kept in mind.
The first is that the testing strategy today is very different from what it was at the start of the pandemic. In the first two years of the outbreak, it was encouraged that all contacts of Covid-19 patients be tested irrespective of whether they exhibited symptoms. Under these circumstances, it was recommended by the World Health Organization that regions target keeping their positivity rates below 5%. While it was sound strategy then, the onset of vaccination and milder variants has made it largely redundant. As things stand, only people exhibiting clear symptoms are advised to get tested, which means positivity rate, as a statistic, tends to be on the higher side even when there isn't a massive spike in infections.
The second factor is that the country is seeing a massive surge in influenza cases at the moment, which has further pushed people to get tested for Covid more (as both diseases have several overlapping symptoms) - further eroding the reliability of keeping an eye on just positivity rate as a means of tracking an outbreak.
3. Hospitalisation rate gives us a far better picture on the status of the outbreak
So, the question emerges: How does one get a clear picture on the status of the outbreak? The answer to this lies in tracking the rate of hospitalisations. However, the challenge in this is that the majority of regions in the country do not offer in public domain hospitalisation data.
Among the 10 states that are currently the biggest outbreak centres in the country at the moment (on the basis of active cases), the number of patients hospitalised could be immediately determined for five - Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Goa.
Among these, Haryana currently does not have any Covid patient hospitalised, while there are 10 hospitalised patients in Uttar Pradesh, 13 in Himachal, 19 in Goa, and 42 in Delhi. When looking at the combined active cases in these state (1,865), this means that only 4.3% of Covid patients currently need hospital care. The hospitalisation scenario becomes even more apparent when we look at bed occupancy data from three cities that publish it - Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. In Chennai, 99.94% of the city's 30,617 available Covid beds are currently lying vacant. In Delhi, Covid-19 bed vacancy is at 99.41%, while it is 98.8% in Mumbai.
4. All this is reflected in the number of deaths, which remains negligible
The low rate of hospitalisation is also reflected in deaths. While India's average daily deaths have seen a marginal rise - to 3.7 in the past week, from 3.3 in the week before - the number remains negligible when seen in the context of the country's population.
In fact, the daily rate of deaths right now is considerably below what the country witnessed through 2022, which itself saw fewer deaths than in each of the two years preceding it.