'Benford’s Law and Covid-19 Reporting' finds that a lack of standardised data sharing practices led to poor Covid-19 policy choices across the world
Research co-authored by Ken Okamura, an expert in corruption at Saïd Business School, finds that although China appears to have manipulated data in the early stages of the pandemic, from January 21 to 16 March the country’s Covid-19 data was accurate. Cases of Covid-19 in the West are once again surging, while China’s remain in the low tens.
The authors employ a mathematical process known as Benford’s Law, which is used to detect fraud or flaws in data collection based on the distribution of the first digits in observed data. They find that confirmed cases in China, United States and Italy all show a decline within the parameters of Benford’s law and thus conclude China did not manipulate their figures from January 21 to 16 March.
Widespread skepticism in Chinese data led to ‘poor policy choices’ by western governments, which were slow to lockdown their citizens in the belief China was exaggerating the success of its containment measures, state the authors. ‘By the end of February, the daily percentage change in the number of confirmed cases in China had fallen to 1%. Yet, governments in Europe chose to delay their responses.’
As the devastating consequences of these policy decisions became apparent US President Donald Trump threatened ‘serious investigations’ into China’s handling of the pandemic.
However, the authors believe the true cause of poor global policy responses was not Chinese data, but a lack of standardised data sharing practices. ‘Even Germany, lauded for its testing regimen, had not published data on the number of tests in late February,’ state the authors. This led to confusion over the seriousness of the outbreak in Italy.
To avoid a repeat of these mistakes in a future pandemic, the authors call for a refinement of the World Health Organisation’s International Health Regulations to ensure timely, accurate and sufficiently detailed information on the extent and reliability of testing.
Benford’s Law and Covid-19 Reporting was written by Christoffer Koch, senior research economist in the macroeconomics group of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and Ken Okamura, Senior Lecturer in Finance at Saïd Business School.