Since the early days of COVID-19, when very little information was available regarding this new virus, we now have an abundance of data. Data such as:

  • Cases recorded, per nation, per time period
  • Positive cases per x number of tests
  • People admitted to hospital with serious COVID symptoms
  • People who died, who had ever tested positive for COVID
  • People who died WITH COVID
  • People who died because of COVID

The above list isn't necessarily available in all categories for all countries. However it illustrates the type of information that is now available, and being recorded.

What I want to know is why nations (as advised by their health authorities) are still using the basic "recorded cases" statistic. As far as any logic should suggest, this figure in itself would only be important if it had been established that merely catching the virus would highly likely lead to hospitalisation, and that death was significantly likely.

However this is not the case. As we have now seen, the vast majority of people don't suffer especially serious symptoms. Most of them fully recover. Only a small fraction of people suffer from such serious symptoms as to require hospitalisation; and an even smaller fraction die.

It's also been established (in the UK at least) that death statistics themselves were seriously flawed: in the first couple of months of data recording, they recorded every person as a COVID death statistic simply if they had ever tested positive - without separating out those cases where they actually died with the virus (and they still haven't properly defined their death stats to accurately reflect deaths definitely caused by COVID, which personally I think is the only useful death figure).

So - given that it has been established how low the mortality rate is, why do authorities still use "number of cases" as the headline figure on which to base policy? Surely the more relevant figure would be to measure the number of serious hospitalisations. Because the rest of the people simply catch it; feel sick for a few days; and then recover. The recoveries are surely of little consequence.


An example of numbers of infections being used as a measure to guide government policy. The British government keeps a list of countries, from which if you arrive, the traveller must self-isolate for 14 days. This list is based on the current numbers of cases being reported in that country (irrespective of the actual death rate).

https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-why-countries-are-added-to-uk-quarantine-list-12061651 states:

One of the main criteria is the latest seven-day infection rate, which gives an estimate of the prevalence of active cases.

If it reaches 20 reported new cases per 100,000 of the population then authorities consider ordering returning travellers to quarantine.

So this is a case of government policy being based entirely on rate of infection.

  • 2
    Used how and by whom? I think you need to cite an example of this number being used to shape public health policy.
    – Carey Gregory
    Aug 29 '20 at 23:00
  • 1
    I’m voting to close this question because it's not well documented that any government makes decisions on purely a such a basis. And if there is, the question (better) belongs on Politics SE.
    – Fizz
    Sep 3 '20 at 4:33
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    @Fizz - The British government keeps a "quarantine list" of countries based on number of cases. I will add this to the question. Sep 3 '20 at 8:30
  • @Fizz - Now added. And I think the question better sits here. Politicians follow what health authorities tell them. So why are health authorities making such a big deal over this raw, unhelpful data which doesn't tell the full story? Sep 3 '20 at 8:39
  • In the example you've added it's pretty obvious why the UK doesn't care about deaths in other countries, but only about their potential for infecting travelers.
    – Fizz
    Sep 3 '20 at 8:47

Government decisions aim at addressing the COVID-19 pandemic (which admittedly many are doing very poorly), since COVID-19 still poses a significant medical threat to a fraction of contaminated people as you mentioned.

The progress of the COVID-19 pandemic is reflected by the number of cases. While

the rest of the people simply catch it; feel sick for a few days; and then recover

these people, along with the asymptomatics, contribute to the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also, the number of deaths is a statistics that is more delayed than number of COVID cases. As a result, it makes sense for government decisions to be based on the number of COVID cases. When medical research progresses and either a reliable vaccine or very effective treatment is available, i.e. that the medical threat decreases, then it'll make more sense for government decisions to be based on the COVID deaths. The threshold is subjective, e.g. if we're ok with a few million deaths the same way we're ok with the budget for medical research being 10 times less than military budget in the US, then we can reopen everything now.

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