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AB 2000 studies

Alain Boublil Blog


The numbers and the pandemic

Numbers have invaded our life. They today are utilized to track the evolution of the pandemic. According to poll opinions, they give rhythm to political life to a point where ideas debate has largely let its place to comments about respective positions of one or another political leader in the opinion. They are at the origin of the whole economic thought, even when the concepts they measure have become obsolete and unsuitable to describe the world as it is or as it is changing. They sometimes guarantee our survival, as in a plane where the assessment of all the flying parameters determines at any time passengers and crew safety. But their interpretation may be the purpose of manipulations or at the origin of decisions which will reveal themselves harmful and opposite to the expected objectives.

Mortality analysis is offering a good example. It has just been announced that the number of deaths in France will be by large superior in 2020 to 2019 and this phenomenon is attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic. But this is only partly true. The demographic boom of the post-war period and the increase of life duration have, as a consequence, that the number of very old people, and so the number of deaths, will not stop to grow until, at least, 2040, with or without pandemic. On the same way, in order to give a definition of the vulnerable person concept, it is explained that 70% of those who die due to the covid-19, are more than 75 years old. But the reality, it is that in a year, more than 70% of the deaths, whatever they come from the pandemic or not, are hitting people who are more than 75 years old. So, the proposed ratio has no real signification.

Politics goes at the poll opinions rhythm, especially when it is about an election of a referendum. The chosen method consists in selecting a group of people whose different characteristics, sex, age, residence, reflect the country reality. The population sample is then representative. Its ability to give an image of the opinion depends of the question. When it is simple (a referendum with a yes or a no vote, a direct election between two candidates), the result accurateness is satisfying. In the other cases, popularity levels, election with several candidates for instance, results are much less reliable, but it doesn’t impeach these who have ordered these poll opinions to spend hours to comment them or to write page after page. The political debate is then losing the main points of its substance.

This numbers obsession is omnipresent in the presentation of the sanitary consequences of the pandemic and has reached political leaders. But a number, in order to acquire a signification, must be based on concrete and checked data. We must know what it means and the measurement methods must be validated. It is all the most important that these numbers will be put forward to justify major political decisions. So, the French government had announced that a total or partial lifting of the lockdown on December 15Th will depend of the fulfillment of two criteria. The number of infected persons, measured by tests, must be inferior to 5000 persons by day and the number of persons in intensive care would be between 2000 and 3000. The first criteria has not been, by large, fulfilled, to the difference of the second one which seemed to be satisfying. So the end of the lockdown has been only partial, with the known restrictions regarding the instauration of a curfew and the keeping of the closure of several activities.

But, despite that, at any time, has been risen the issue of the representative character of the counting of the infections. To give an opinion on its evolution during a period of time, it would have been necessary that the number of tests was fixed once forever (which is opposed to public health objectives). It is obvious that the more you test, the more you have the possibility to find infected persons. And the more you test in areas where you know, for instance, that the population is very dense, the more you have, there too, the possibility to find positive tests. In order that the analysis of the evolution of the numbers of affected persons makes sense, it would have been necessary that the representativeness of the population which is tested every day was guaranteed. Obviously, that has not been the case. The only rigorous data was, in fact, the number of persons being in intensive care. No correlation has been established between these two criteria. When the number of infected persons was rebounding, the number of persons in intensive care was diminishing and fulfilling the condition decided by the State. It has reached a level a little over 2 700 persons where it has been stabilized.

It was also possible to think that there was a rather constant time lag between contamination and the arrival in intensive care. But it has not been the case. The arrivals have continuously fallen for several weeks, despite the maintenance at a rather high, and even some days, rising level of the number of infected persons. So it is the recourse to this measurement tool which is in question: the intensity of the pandemic and its evolution during time does not depend of the number of the tests which are revealing themselves positive. The same observation can be done with international comparisons. Census methods being different from a country to another, it is very difficult to make a rigorous analysis and to take from it lessons which yet could be very useful, regarding the good decisions to take in this kind of circumstances. But that doesn’t impeach comments to flourish and frequently to contradict themselves about these who have well reacted and taken the appropriate decisions and the other ones.

We find again that obsession about figures and comparisons in the analysis of the economic consequences of the pandemic. French statistical system was obviously not prepared to such brutal activity breaks and to such behavior changes. Forecasts about coming evolutions are all the more fragile. Are the alarmist messages about the pandemic duration going to affect household as enterprises behaviors in the future?  Or is the observed shock for near a year just an interlude and does everything will come back as it was before? The observation of what is happening in China could leave us to believe that the second hypothesis is if not the most plausible, at least possible. The Chinese economy will be the only one among major countries to grow in 2020 and expects to rebound in 2021 within a GDP growth above 5%. But as we put most of the time doubts on the information coming from Beijing, we would be more tempted to think that it is the first hypothesis we must choose. Travels and consumption restrictions have favored the creation in France of a huge household financial saving. The usual 4.5% ratio between financial saving and available revenue has jumped to 13% as an average during the second and third quarters. During the full year, household consumption and enterprise investments would fall by at least 10%. What will happen in 2021 if the pandemic context with the restrictions which accompany it remains? So the expected rebound included in the next year Finance bill (+5%) is not very likely.

The lack of consistency between pessimistic considerations about the evolution of the pandemic and the optimistic forecasts regarding the economic rebound are all the more surprising since they come from the same source: the French government.




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