John Keiger John Keiger

Can we trust France’s coronavirus casualty count?

It is said that the first casualty of war is truth. In the purported war on coronavirus, Rod Liddle rightly asks ‘how reliable are the coronavirus figures?’ and comes to the conclusion the answer is ‘not very’. He is right, for at least two important reasons. 

Firstly, not all states are carrying out the same number of tests per million people. For Germany, it is 2,023; Britain, 960; and France, 560. That has a consequence on the number of positive infected cases. Given that the most widely-accessed world rankings of total cases per country used by the media, such as Worldometers (updated in live-time), are based on that figure, the results are not hugely helpful. 

Some might say this shows why we should use total number of deaths per country to determine the impact of coronavirus. Here, though, is the second problem: do countries record deaths in the same way?.

Take France, for instance. Every evening at 7.15pm, news channels are interrupted to hear the director general of health, Professor Salomon, gravely deliver from his lectern the days coronavirus statistics for France. He has been doing so for several weeks. First, the details the number of infected cases; second, the number of deaths.

These are very precise in the way the French admirably are in anything to do with mathematics. No sloppy rounding up or down as might be the case in Britain. Mathematics is a science for the French, which explains why they have more Fields medals per capita than any country in the world. It was therefore disturbing to note that earlier this week, Prof Salomon’s reference to ‘total number of deaths in France’ suddenly changed to ‘total number of deaths in hospitals’. 

An owl-eared journalist picked this up in the questions. He asked about the deaths in old peoples’ homes, retirement homes, nursing homes and individual homes.

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John Keiger
Written by
John Keiger

Professor John Keiger is the former research director of the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge.

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