Sensationalization of predictions on COVID 19 pandemic by media competing with fake news

Sensational presentation of COVID 19 predictions in a section of media exposes their desperate attempts to be in limelight. Although the scientists are updating data and revising predictions in light of changing response of the governments to control the pandemic, the news portals are not doing proper follow up stories. These sensational reports are creating despair among the public and providing fodder for fake news on social media.

Siddheshwar  ShuklaSiddheshwar Shukla | Updated: 17-04-2020 11:16 IST | Created: 16-04-2020 06:04 IST
Sensationalization of predictions on COVID 19 pandemic by media competing with fake news
Representative image Image Credit: ANI

Today, news portals and social media are deluged with predictions on COVID 19 outbreak at national as well as global level. Though themselves based on certain assumptions and constraints, these predictions claim to present a true picture on the extent of the COVID 19 outbreak at local as well as global level. Interestingly, all the predictors claim to follow scientific procedures but show different pictures – some very scary while some others are optimistic. In the absence of any universal criteria for the dissemination of these predictions, it has become very difficult for a common audience to differentiate between fact and fiction.

Besides, they are not unanimous on the role of lockdown in controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus thereby creating a debate on the issue. As millions of people are forced to stay indoors due to global lockdown, sensational presentation of scary predictions about the intensity and extent of the outbreak may cause adverse effects. The controversies behind the measures to control the pandemic are reportedly promoting the people to rise against lockdown measures from Berlin to Mumbai

SEIR Model of WHO

This is one of the initial models for predicting the outbreak of COVID 19. The SEIR model is based on the data of Susceptible-Exposed-Infectious-Recovered (SEIR) persons of the novel coronavirus from 20 January to 3 March 2020. In this period, the infection was largely confined in the Wuhan city of China. The trajectory of COVID 19 was predicted for the next 240 days from 20 January. 

According to this prediction, the number of infected individuals will peak to 425.066 million globally in May 2020. “Thereafter, the number of infected individuals dropped to under 10 million on 12 July 2020, under 1 million on 3 Aug 2020 and under 10,000 at the end of the trajectory on 14 Sep 2020,” said the predictions. However, the prediction did not match with real data on the 24th day. “It was found that the total number of confirmed cases for all countries and regions are increasing steadily, but on day 24, the huge increment with 15,000 differences were discovered. This is due to the change in how China measured the confirmed cases,” added the research of WHO claimed to be conducted by selected experts from throughout the globe. In this prediction, the average Infected-Suspected ratio was considered as 2.399. However, the research claimed to predict the number of cases, deaths, and recoveries of COVID 19 but it has also admitted the limitations. “COVID-19 is still an unclear infectious disease, which means we can only obtain an accurate SEIR prediction after the outbreak ends. The outbreak spreads are largely influenced by each country’s policy and social responsibility. As data transparency is crucial inside the government, it is also our responsibility not to spread unverified news and to remain calm in this situation,” reads the study. Thus it is clear that even the WHO’s high profile SEIR prediction models developed by experts drawn from various disciplines could not predict accurately.

The study clearly mentions that exact prediction would be possible only after the outbreak is controlled for its highly contagious nature and the plurality of variables.

Predictions about Europe and the USA

The report of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation came into limelight after it suggested that the UK will record maximum deaths amongst the European countries, more than Italy.

Based on the number of infections, the gap between the available and required number of beds, and the gap between the available and required number of ventilators; the report had predicted 66,314 fatalities in the UK by August 4. The prediction has now been revised to 23,791 deaths. As per the updated projections, by the time, 68,841 people will die in the USA and 21,130 in Italy by August 4. 

If we compare the predictions with the actual data of WHO on April 15, Italy and Spain with 20,465 and 17,789 deaths were quite close to revised predictions of 20,513 and 17,796 deaths respectively. However, the actual deaths in the UK and the USA were less. In its revised estimate, the university had predicted 13,932 deaths in the UK and 28,014 for the USA on 15 April but these two countries recorded 11,329 and 23, 476 deaths respectively.

However, on the basis of changing the response system to the pandemic in various countries, the university is updating its predictions. “Our forecasts of zero deaths in July and August assume that appropriate measures are put in place to guard against the reintroduction of COVID-19 from another state or country.  These measures may include mass screening, contact tracing, testing of all individuals entering the country, and quarantine of people who test positive. Details on what these strategies need to be will be analyzed in future editions of the forecasts,” said the report.  It simply means that the situation can be controlled by appropriate measures of scanning, tracking, quarantine, and hospitalization. The university also claims to be working on what would happen if social distancing measures were lifted before the pandemic is under control.

Besides, the initial predictions made by the University of Oxford and Imperial College of London based on the assumption that the social distancing and lockdown measures were not enforced. These predictions led the UK and other countries to rush for stricter measures to control the pandemic. Now, these prediction models are also being updated.

Another study by Oxford has suggested that the disease would remain in the USA until 2022 and require intermittent lockdowns. The study suggests to conduct regular screening of patients and practicing strict social distancing even after lockdown is withdrawn. Earlier in February, Harvard professors had predicted that 70 percent of the world population will be infected with COVID 19. 

COVID 19 Predictions about India

India has always been at the center of predictions apparently for sharing terrestrial boundaries with China, high population density, low literacy, poverty, and governance. In the very initial stage of the COVID 19 outbreak, British economist Jim O’Neill on March 14 mocked India by saying that he was thankful to the God that the outbreak started in China and ‘not somewhere like India’. Neill's colonial mentality was criticized by all and sundry. 

Initial estimates suggested that the number of cases in India will be above 13 lakhs if strict measures were not implemented. A major controversy was created when Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh cited a study by Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) Chandigarh that claimed the COVID 19 outbreak ‘will peak India by mid-September and infect 58 percent of Indian population’. However, the institute denied any such study but the CM’s office alleged a faculty of the institute for providing the details. This has now become a classic case of prediction based fake news. 

Another study by the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Rohtak has predicted 1.5 lakh cases by the first week of May due relaxations given to a religious event in Delhi during the first phase of lockdown that concluded on April 14. This study has strongly recommended continuing lockdown which has now been extended to May 3. 

The mathematical models used to predict COVID 19 outbreak in India present a scary picture for focusing on silos and not considering the holistic aspect of the situation.  According to an analysis of mathematician and AI (Artificial Intelligence) expert Vineet Gupta, if the predictions of these models are considered about 20 million people would die in India alone. These models had some inherent problems of not applying all the factors in controlled circumstances. Gupta suggests that total infected cases would lie between 50,000 and 70,000, and total fatalities between 1,500 and 2,100. “India should be able to start gradual easing of the lockdown somewhere between April 24 and May 6, 2020,” said Gupta in an analysis on March 13.

Tree Model of COVID 19: 40 days’ lockdown is sufficient

The tree model for prediction of COVID 19 cases in India has been developed by Arti M. K., professor at Delhi's Ambedkar Institute of Advanced Communication Technologies and Research and her colleague Kushagra Bhatnagar. In the model, the researchers claim to have included several variables including ‘hidden active nodes’ and the impact of lockdown.

“The predictions made by the mathematical model are reportedly similar to the actual data provided by the government. A constrained scenario is considered, specifically lock-down is imposed from 25 March. Even then some hidden active nodes (infected person) exist and these nodes are increasing day-by-day,” said the study. “At least 40 days’ complete lock-down is needed to make total cases equal to zero. If medical facilities are better and recovery rate is 0.35, 0.45, and 0.535, respectively, then 40 days’ complete lock-down is required for 3000, 4000, and 5000 infected cases,” claims the study. Besides, it also suggests that with the increase in cases lockdown period may also increase. “The effect of lock-down in multiple phases has also been studied and it is shown by the simulation results that lock-down in multiple phases is not a good strategy to deal with Covid19,” concluded the study.

However, the study is silent on the area around the 'active nodes' or hotspots of COVID 19 required to be sealed or enforcement of complete lockdown. Complete lockdown in India means about one-third of Europe with two times the population is under lockdown. Therefore, the lockdown which is termed as local or state level in India will be approximately equal to the national level lockdown of several European countries.

The bottom-line

All the prediction models are based on previous data and trends. The data collection itself is a challenging task and has certain limitations. Besides, models are based on certain presumptions as well such as ‘if social distancing measures are not followed’, ‘if lockdown is not implemented’ or ‘if the lockdown and social distancing measures are uplifted before containment of the disease’ etc.

On the basis of these ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, the scientists calculate the number of lives to be saved by introducing various measures to control the pandemic. Commenting on three much-popularized models – University of Washington, Harvard University and Imperial College; Jeremy Rossman of the University of Kent said, “While these models may not be able to accurately predict the specific number of COVID-19 fatalities over the coming months, they still offer a useful glimpse of potential futures. This gives a context for policy decisions and our collective actions.” He further added, “We like being able to quantify things and it is easier to convince people of the importance of physical distancing if we can say that it will save 236,000 lives,”.  

Deeply concerned with the misinformation, the UN chief Antonio Guterres on 28 March,  said, “ To overcome the #coronavirus, we need to urgently promote facts and science, hope and solidarity over despair and division,”. Unfortunately, the scary predictions and their sensational reporting in media have failed miserably to communicate hope and are only spreading despair.

We are indeed in the middle of a pandemic which has spread in every country of the world within a short span of three months. The truth should not be concealed from people but sensationalization needs to be avoided by media at his point of time. Besides, the WHO should include the scary and sensational predictions in the ‘Myth Busters’ category to provide people adequate and updated information on predictions about COVID 19 outbreak at national as well as global level.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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