They tell us that the coronavirus cases have crossed the 1,000-mark and 29 have died; they don’t tell us that 100 persons have recovered and that out of 942 active cases, not one person has been categorised ‘serious or critical.’
Long ago, I met an elderly gentleman at the New Delhi-based National Council of Applied Economic Research. I asked him what he did. “Modelling,” he said. I was flabbergasted. For I had a very different conception of modelling—beautiful girls, ramps, sizzling music, atmospherics. I could never associate it with a dismal science and its prosaic practitioners, like the senior citizen I was talking to.
He enlightened me about economic models. An economic model, he said, tells about the functioning of an economy. Assumptions play an important role, as they hugely impact the findings. According to a post on the website of the London School of Economics, modelling “exerts the discipline of forcing the modeler to formally articulate assumptions and tease out relationships behind those assumptions. Models are used for two main purposes: simulating (e.g. how would the world change relative to some counterfactual if we assume a change in this or that variable) and forecasting (e.g. what the world might look like in 2030). Economic models are great tools for simulations…”
Another post, on the website of the International Monetary Fund, says, “An important feature of an economic model is that it is necessarily subjective in design because there are no objective measures of economic outcomes.”
However, when the subjective element is blown out of proportion, and bears no relationship with the objective reality, the projection could go horribly wrong. This is when modelling ceases to excite or amuse; it horrifies everybody, including decision makers.
When media-anointed experts start modelling in a cavalier fashion, the consequences can be calamitous. There is a guy called Ramanan Laxminarayan, the founder and director of the Washington-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy (CDDEP) and lecturer at Princeton University. In a number of interviews, he predicted pralaya for India. In the worst-case scenario, Dr Laxminarayan claimed that six out of 10 Indians could get infected—that is, 60-70 crore people. It looks like “Dr” Laxminarayan is not a medical doctor but PhD, for neither the CDDEP nor Princeton mentions about his medical degree, if he has one.
Later, he offered lame excuses for making alarmist projections. He brought down the number to 30 crore; even that was high. In an interview to Outlook Money, he said, “Basically, I said 300 million, if you don’t do anything at all. These are moving estimates and why are they moving? Because when I said 200 to 300 million, nothing was happening, literally, there was no action at that point in time. The government was saying there is no community transmission, and we’ve stopped the borders. So, at that stage, that was the model. Now, when the government announced a lockdown, we have a more optimistic scenario, which takes that number further down.”
If you don’t do anything at all—what an assumption to make! Is there any government in the world, democratic or authoritarian, which isn’t doing anything at all against Covid-19? It is okay for liberals to dislike Prime Minister Narendra Modi and criticise his policies, but to assume that he and his government would do nothing to fight the coronavirus smacks of not dislike but pathological hatred for him.
Liberals just hate everybody on the Right for every possible reason—Modi in India because he has announced a complete nationwide lockdown, President Donald Trump in the United States because he hasn’t.
And they love anybody, even if he is a nobody like Laxminarayan, who tells them that the coronavirus will end mankind. A study by the Imperial College London, another result of modelling, earlier said that Covid-19 may kill 22 lakh people in the US and more than 5 lakh in the UK.
The mainstream media widely reported it. A few days later, the same institute said that, well, the number in the UK was not above 5 lakh, but below 20,000. What was this? “Galti se mistake ho gaya,” as a famous Hindi film dialogue goes?
It may be impossible to find out how much the findings of flawed modelling influenced decision making all over the world, including in India, what kind of costs, human and economic, they imposed on mankind. All this misery because some experts were careless and sloppy.
Fear-mongering seems to have emerged as a booming industry in these depressing times. From “experts” to the media, everybody is terrorising us. They tell us that the coronavirus cases have crossed the 1,000-mark and 29 have died; they don’t tell us that 100 persons have recovered and that out of 942 active cases, not one person has been categorised “serious or critical” and all have “mild condition”.
They also don’t tell us that the number of Indian fatalities is 0.085% of the global fatalities, whereas India’s population is almost 17% of the world’s.
Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a freelance journalist.