The global crisis — in data

 The global crisis — in data


Daily deaths (7-day rolling average)

A chart made with Visual Vocabulary Components from the Financial Times visual and data journalism team.JFMAMJJASO0100200China123

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Jan 10 Start of ‘Chunyun’

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Jan 23 Wuhan lockdown begins

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April 8 Wuhan lockdown ends

The emergence of a new Sars-like coronavirus could not have come at a worse time for China. The country was already 10 days into Chunyun — the Lunar New Year travel season that is also the largest annual human migration on the planet — when government officials finally confirmed human-to-human transmission of the as-yet-unnamed virus on January 20.

The city at the centre of the outbreak, Wuhan in Hubei province, went into lockdown three days later. By then, much of the city’s populace was already on the move across the country to enjoy the festivities with their families, an enormous outflow of people by road, rail and air estimated to total 5m — almost half of Wuhan’s official population — by the city’s mayor.

Exodus before lockdown

Flights out of Wuhan by destination, Jan 18-24

Flights out of Wuhan by destination, Jan 18-24

Given the scale of human movement, further spread of the virus across China seemed inevitable. And yet, nine months after the outbreak, province-level cases data reveal China’s remarkable success in containing it to the province of origin.

Despite pre-lockdown travel from Hubei, China managed to contain its Covid-19 outbreak

Cumulative confirmed coronavirus cases, by province, as at October 13 2020

Cumulative confirmed coronavirus cases, by province, as at October 13 2020

Although there are valid concerns about the reliability of China’s official figures, its success in containing the virus is largely explained by another factor — intensive contact tracing. But this, too, was subject to a curious paradox of its own: for a nation with a reputation for using cutting-edge technology to spy on its citizens, much of it was achieved with old-school methods such as questionnaires.

While China curbed the outbreak, the transmission of the virus overseas — and the differing responses of other nations to its arrival — meant that the real story of Covid-19 was only just beginning.

Daily deaths (7-day rolling average)

A chart made with Visual Vocabulary Components from the Financial Times visual and data journalism team.JFMAMJJASO03,5007,000ChinaAsiaItalyEuropeNorthAmericaLatinAmericaMiddleEastAfrica1

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Mar 13 WHO declares Europe epicentre of pandemic

By late February new cases in China were in decline, and attention had shifted to two new areas of concern, one a regional neighbour and the other further afield.

Alarms were raised in South Korea in mid-February after a single super-spreader sparked more than 1,000 cases in the city of Daegu in a matter of days. Between February 17 and 25, the country’s confirmed case count rose from 31 to 1,146 — a 37-fold increase in just eight days, with cases doubling every day and a half.

Meanwhile, in Europe, all eyes were on Italy, where 17 cases on March 21 became 1,700 by April 1 as a cluster of infections began spreading through the northern region of Lombardy.

In early March, Italy and South Korea appeared to be on similar paths

Cumulative number of coronavirus cases, by number of days since 100th case (data as of March 12)

Cumulative number of coronavirus cases, by number of days since 100th case (data as of March 12)

Both trajectories looked bleak, but the countries’ fortunes quickly diverged.

South Korea acted quickly, taking advantage of legislation passed in response to the 2012 Mers crisis that allows for extensive surveillance of its citizens during an infectious disease outbreak. A comprehensive contact-tracing operation was put in place, partnered with a rapid expansion of testing. On March 20, South Korea was carrying out 100 tests for every positive one that came back, the same day it recorded its 100th death. It took Italy three more months and 34,000 deaths to reach the same testing levels.

South Korea launched a huge testing operation before its first major cluster of infections; Italy’s testing capacity expanded only after thousands of deaths

Chart of daily tests per confirmed case against daily cases and deaths in Italy and South Korea

Italy was slow to act at the outset, and Lombardy’s outbreak had already become an epidemic by the time the region was placed into lockdown on March 8. Once March and April had passed, 26,000 more people had lost their lives in the region than would typically die in the same months — more than half of Italy’s total toll of “excess deaths”.

The worst of Italy’s outbreak was concentrated in a cluster of northern provinces

Map of excess deaths in Italy by province

*Median number of deaths from all causes in the same weeks, 2015-2019

Daily deaths (7-day rolling average)

A chart made with Visual Vocabulary Components from the Financial Times visual and data journalism team.JFMAMJJASO03,5007,000AsiaItalyUKEuropeNorthAmericaLatinAmericaMiddleEastAfrica1

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Mar 23 UK enters lockdown

In the weeks that followed the crisis in Lombardy, counting ever-increasing Covid-19 fatalities became a daily task across much of Europe — along with speculation about what the pandemic’s final death toll would be.

Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, told the health select committee on March 17 that keeping UK deaths to 20,000 or below would be a “good outcome”.

That figure proved to be overly optimistic — but it’s hard to say by precisely how much: establishing the number of Covid-19 victims has been a problem both in the UK and in other countries around the world.

Differing definitions lead to different death tolls

Cumulative deaths in England, by definition

Cumulative deaths in England, by definition

By whatever measure the pandemic’s grimmest accounting is computed, the UK’s death toll — and particularly England’s — remains among the highest in the world. By its headline figure, 38,524 people in England have died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test, but this rises to 42,672 if you extend the cutoff to 60 days, according to the UK’s coronavirus dashboard.

The Office for National Statistics, meanwhile, has tallied 50,642 death certificates mentioning Covid-19 up to October 2, and, if you begin counting on March 6, the day that the 100th positive case was recorded, 56,537 deaths in excess of the average for the same period in the past five years. This figure includes deaths from all causes, including Covid-19.

England’s official death toll tells only part of the story

Weekly deaths

Cumulative deaths in England, by definition

The UK’s experience demonstrates how seemingly precise tallies of the virus’s victims can vary considerably using alternative definitions and administrative processes. This also explains why national headline death tolls are almost certainly undercounts of the pandemic’s true, but only imprecisely knowable, human cost.

Daily deaths (7-day rolling average)

A chart made with Visual Vocabulary Components from the Financial Times visual and data journalism team.JFMAMJJASO03,5007,000