Andrew's Column: Is India's big lockdown saving lives?
What's going on here? Why are Europe and North America being hit hardest by a virus which originated in China? Why is much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America escaping with a much lower loss of life?
The pandemic passed two sombre milestones in the past few days. Milestones, did I say? More like tombstones!
More than 2,00,000 people around the world have now died from COVID-19 - and in Britain alone, the figure is now above 20,000.
These are, of course, based on official figures of confirmed COVID- related deaths. We all know the numbers are likely to be a huge understatement.
And let me try to put into context what's happening in Britain. The country accounts for 1% of the world's population - and 10% of all coronavirus deaths to date. If the United Kingdom were an Indian state, it would rank ninth in terms of population - squeezed between Rajasthan and Karnataka. Yet it has recorded twenty-five times more COVID deaths than the whole of India.
Put it another way; in proportionate terms, this virus seems to be killing 500 times more people in Britain than in India. Yes, that's 500 - not 5, not 50, but 500!
And the UK is not carrying the heaviest burden. If you put aside microstates such as San Marino (don't ask!) and Andorra (ditto!), Belgium has the highest pandemic fatality rate per million people at about 600 (so double Britain's incidence). Prosperous, inoffensive, boring Belgium!
So what's going on here? Why are Europe and North America being hit hardest by a virus which originated in China? Why is much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America escaping with a much lower loss of life?
Well, one explanation could be that the figures are so full of holes that they are close to meaningless.
The numbers guys measure the scale of this pandemic not by the tally of people who have been tested positive and then die in hospital - but by what's called excess mortality. That's the gap between the total number of people who died from any cause and the recent historical average for the same place at this time of year.
The initial figures are in and the Economist has done a breakdown. In New York, there's an almost exact match between the official number for COVID deaths and the excess mortality. But in the worst affected part of Italy, only half of the excess deaths are officially attributed to the virus.
And in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, just 5% of the excess death is officially said to be because of the virus - or more plainly, the crisis is claiming twenty times as many lives as the official figures suggest. Normally in March, there would be about 2,800 burials in the city; last month, there were actually about 4,400 burials; however, Jakarta has officially recorded just 84 COVID deaths over that period.
So - there it is! The mystery isn't that mysterious. Countries that are poorer and have a less well developed public health system are hugely under-reporting the number of people killed by the virus.
But hang on. The Reuters news agency has had a look at what's happening in India - and this really is a surprise. Its findings suggest - it's not definite, just an indication - that the lockdown has been so tight that fewer Indians are dying in road accidents, on the railways, and in the workplace. So there's not an excess mortality at all - fewer people in India are dying than normal, even allowing for the pandemic.
If the wonky numbers explanation doesn't hold up, there's no shortage of other theories to account for why the virus strikes in some parts of the world much harder than in others. One bright spark suggested that women leaders are doing much better in responding to the emergency than men. That might help explain the relatively low incidences in New Zealand, Germany, Finland, and Taiwan - but it's a talking point rather than an explanation.
Others have wondered aloud whether the virus is less virulent in hot climates. Or whether patterns of vaccination are a factor. Or whether westerners have become so cosseted in their lifestyles that they are much less hardy when a novel form of disease strikes.
Or whether countries in Asia and Africa, which have recently lived through SARS and Ebola, are more willing to impose an early lockdown than western nations which have had less exposure to public health emergencies and are more concerned about public opinion.
But this pandemic has some way to run - so while we're right to ask the questions, it's going to be a while before we get answers we can trust.
It took an awfully long time to get to the bottom of who came out worse from another global pandemic - the 'Spanish' flu outbreak of just over a hundred years ago. The answer: India. About seventeen million Indians lost their lives, or roughly one-in-five of all global fatalities.
When a pandemic strikes, of course, the awful truth is: no one wins.