The Geographical Significance of COVID-19 and the Politics of Data Manipulation

This Orthodox Easter inds most of the Greeks celebrating at home, as a lockdown is still imposed across the country. The Greek Government acted promptly and taken all the necessary countermeasures shortly after the first COVID-19 case was reported in the country.

Greece’s Fight with COVID-19

So far, the numbers of cases and COVID-19 related fatalities in Greece are rather encouraging; but this fact has been rather over-emphasized on purpose by numerous – local and international – media. There is a tendency to compare the Greek facts and figures to some of the Western European countries, mostly affected by the virus.

After examining data from other European countries, it will be explained why the aforementioned approach is probably biased and in which context a comparison would be accurate. In our analysis, we will use information from the Johns Hopkins University database, utilizing the numbers of deaths per 100k of population in a country. In that way, we will ascertain there is proportionality in our findings, as opposed to comparing the absolute number of confirmed deaths, which some reports have used. Also, we will avoid the fallacy of comparing the number of confirmed cases, as there are countries where COVID-19 incidents are substantially under-reported due to the remarkably low number of the tests conducted; Greece is one of these countries.

Greece compared to the Western EU Countries

The main narrative adopted in the reports talking about the “Greek success story” has been fundamentally based upon the fact that the Greek state, a perceived “pariah” among Eurozone until recently, due to the decade-long economic crisis of the country, has managed to handle the Covid-19 outbreak much more proactively and efficiently than other EU member states. This inappropriate analogy could be interpreted only as politically biased. Charts of the following logic have been used in several cases, and the results seem surprisingly good for Greece.

According to the above dataset, Athens has undoubtedly achieved the impossible. The timely governmental measures mitigated the crisis, proving that Greece outpaced all the hyperdeveloped and prosperous EU counterparts. We should note here that the data utilized, presents the Covid-19 related deaths in absolute numbers.

Greece compared to the Balkans and Central-Eastern European Countries

Now taking our comparison to the wider area, where Greece belongs geographically, we can see a remarkable differentiation. This time we have used the confirmed death cases as an one death per 100 k of population ratio, which provides a much more accurate estimation of the real figures as opposed to the absolute number of deaths per country. Utilizing the following graph we can see that the impression is diametrically changed, with Greece in this case, moving between average levels. Athens has reported almost 1 death per 100k people, with most countries ranging from 0.5 to 2 deaths per 100 thousand of population.

The Eastern-Western Europe Context and the case of Italy

From the previous graph, we can understand that the most appropriate comparison should be made among countries with similar characteristics in terms of geographical location – and some additional factors that will be examined later. Any given impartial and precise assessment should fit in an Eastern-Western Europe context instead of comparing a specific country in Balkans, like Greece to a country in North-Western Europe, like the Netherlands.

Taking the assumption of the geographical significance further, it would be worth looking into the case Italy. Italy, the first European country where Covid-19 noted such a sharp and violent increase in incidents, with a worryingly high mortality rate, presents a unique example of the correlation between the virus and the location. While the northern areas of the country have been reporting over the last weeks a tremendous number of incidents and deaths, the things are significantly different as we are moving southwards and eastwards.  The numbers in Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Veneto have been really disheartening. The figures are notably lower in Lazio and Campania, while the cases in Basilicata and Calabria are just a fraction compared to the North.

Factors explaining the divergence and the BCG vaccine

So far there have been some factors indicating why the number of cases and deaths related to Covid-19 differ substantially from region to region. Apparently, there is evidence that the extent and the fatalities in a country are related to the median age of the population. Scientific research has proven that the elderly are significantly more vulnerable to the virus, indicating that countries with ageing populations are more likely to report a higher number of cases and fatalities. According to the data available so far there could also be a correlation between the temperature of a country and the rate Covid-19 is spreading. Even though there is no substantial evidence about this yet, there are assumptions that the warmer a country is the more difficult for the virus to spread.

There is also a notable difference between the capabilities of the National Health services across Central-Eastern European countries and the Balkans compared to Western Europe. With overloaded hospitals and shortages in health equipment supplies being two of the most concerning risk factors for Covid-19 fatalities, the aforementioned regions have been more careful with regards to the timing of imposing the Covid-19 restrictions. Countries with weaker public health infrastructure have adopted stricter measures faster, in order to prevent the potential collapse of the National Health System capacity; a strategy which proved to be quite fruitful.

Last but not least, there have been some claims about the possible correlation between the BCG vaccine and Covid-19 transmission. BCG is the vaccine used against tuberculosis and there are thoughts that it could be effective against Covid-19. Even though there is no evidence yet and WHO indicates that people should not use the vaccine as a measure against the virus, the ongoing trials testing the BCG effects, indicate that some of those claims could be founded. And if this is the case, then we might have an explanation about the discrepancy of incidents and fatalities from country to country in the region under question; this vaccine has been mandatory for most of the Balkans and Eastern European countries over the last decades. To the contrary, the most affected countries including Scandinavia, Italy and the UK (and even the US) have either given up the mandatory policy for the vaccine several years ago or simply never had such a policy in place.

Bottom Line

A comparison of Covid-19 cases without considering the substantial factors potentially affecting their number could be misleading. The following example indicates how real figures and data could be used in a way to easily manipulate public opinion; especially in an era that the vast majority of the audience prefer a visualized set of data to a thorough scientific paper – regardless of how accurate the findings are in either case. According to the graph, countries with a remarkably small population size are seemingly in a much worse position than China and Iran, an obviously misleading claim.

Greece has indeed addressed the Covid-19 challenge promptly and taken a series of countermeasures to limit the scope of the virus in the country. But trying to overstress the effectiveness of the measures by comparing Greece with the most affected countries across Western Europe -or even the US- is not only pointless but also deceptive. At this critical moment, journalism should stick to the facts, seeking to inform the public responsibly and accurately, leaving aside biases and politics.