Governments around the world in the past have been caught ‘cooking the books’. I am referring to the way some have twisted statistics on the performance of their economies to their people and the world (such as high growth, low inflation, small deficit, etc.).
At the same time, national governmental apparatuses under the control of these same governments are the only ones who possess the necessary data input to produce these figures.
You do not have to be a genius to work out that incentives to tweak them in one’s favour seem clear enough.
Recent studies by independent and trusted bodies have accumulated substantial evidence that data manipulation does occur. They have focused their analyses on statistical outputs, paying much less attention to the question how governments manipulate their numbers.
Three recent high-profile cases include the attempt by the Argentinian government to tweak inflation statistics between 2007 and 2015, Dilma Rousseff’s attempts to lower Brazilian debt and deficit figures between 2012 and 2015, and well-known controversies about Greece’s public finance statistics during the EU bail out after the 2008 financial crash.
This brings me to question how accurate the figures released by many governments around the world are during this current Covid-19 pandemic. Recognising the ambiguity of statistics as one of their key features can substantially recast our understanding of the politics of data manipulation.
Most of the Covit-19 deaths being reported by European countries have them in the top of the death league table when you measure deaths per million of the population. Recent Statista reports indicate that Belgium is in number one position with a figure of 822 deaths per million, followed by Spain at 580, the UK at 569, Italy at 548, France at 427 and in sixth place Sweden at 419.
It seems to me to be very strange when you look at the reported deaths in countries such as Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan where they have very much lower deaths per million from the Covid-19 virus. I’m not in a position to accuse that some are communicating numbers that have been fabricated through data manipulation but there are some causes for concern when you examine the numbers being reported by some countries.
The world is like it or like it not all in this pandemic together. The virus respects no borders, does not favour the wealthy but it does affect the old and poor disproportionally. So far into the pandemic we are being pushed to reconsider the broad theoretical parameters of data manipulation, the recognition of the ambiguity of statistics also invites us to re-examine the processes through which politicians can bend official statistics.
For leaders to deliberately fabricate their headline figures remains a high-risk last resort strategy that is likely to be shunned in practice. This pandemic being global will expose data manipulation efforts or deliberately optimistic guesswork as leaders are exposed.
We must also consider the limitations some governments have when it comes to reporting the truth. Local officials in provinces may not want to tell the leadership at the top the truth as it would have an impact on them and their officials.
One thing for sure during this pandemic is the fact that the world is a more open and transparent place where manipulation of statistics becomes much more difficult with lies and half-truths exposed.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]