SEPTEMBER 27 — Last Wednesday I casually asked my students if they knew what the fatalities for Covid-19 were. 

Without hesitation they gave a number between 300 and 400. I asked them if they were sure, if they knew of any other possible number, etc. They said no and 300+ is what they saw in the news.

Then I asked them if they were aware of the daily reported deaths being different from the actual death figure. 

What surprised me was not one of the 60 or so students in the class — most of whom are 24/7 on their devices and social media — knew the Ministry of Health now logs deaths to include backlogged cases.

A few WhatsApp and Twitter messages later and I’m convinced that a majority of Malaysians continue to believe that every day (since the start of September) more than 300+ people die of Covid-19 every day.

But, according to the Ministry of Health and as presented in the CovidNow website, this is NOT actually the case. 

What is actually happening is that since early August (the 6th, to be precise) the 7-day average of the Actual Daily Deaths from Covid-19 has been falling steadily from more than 300. 

As of September 23, the number has dipped below 100.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Malaysians should be out in the streets celebrating: Every day, even one unnecessary death from Covid-19 is a tragedy. 

However, it certainly won’t hurt if more of us tracked the 7-day average in addition to (or even instead of) the total figure which includes backlogged cases. 

Creative accounting?

Swab samples to test for Covid-19 are pictured at Dewan Desa Temuan in Kota Damansara January 29, 2021. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Swab samples to test for Covid-19 are pictured at Dewan Desa Temuan in Kota Damansara January 29, 2021. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

I’ve also heard many say that they don’t believe the “actual” figures. They believe the powers-that-be are fudging the numbers or playing fast and loose with figures in order to present a more rosy picture of the pandemic situation. 

One or two have even warned me that the ACTUAL actual (what a phrase) figure is much higher and we better not be misled by the government’s “creative accounting.”

Now, of course, it may be true that intentional misinformation may be happening. Nothing, especially these days, is impossible. 

Nevertheless, I find it ironic that we can give different credence to different categories of numbers presented by the same organisation? I mean, why assume that the so-called “reported” figure is closer to the truth than the so-called “actual” figure? 

Is it simply because the “actual” number is lower? I mean, would we start believing the “actual” number if it was HIGHER than the “reported” number?

See what I mean? I get a feeling it’s not about evidence or fact or logic or data – it’s about preferring to think that the number of deaths in Malaysia is always higher than the numbers the government puts out, while continuing to rely on government numbers!

A dynamic (but still falling) ‘actual’ death rate

Let me be clear. While I’m one of those who feels more optimistic because I focus on the lower “actual”  number, I’m not that naïve to believe that the “actual” reflects the real.

The way I see it, the “actual” death rate remains an imperfect (albeit more accurate) representation of the situation and we will probably never know the real daily rate.

This can be verified by the fact that the “actual” death rate can change. One day it can be fewer than 40, then a few days later when you check the number of that day, it can be up to 60 (see note 1). 

The ministry already said numbers are dynamic and can change... when there are more Covid-19 deaths confirmed for a certain day, they will be added to the initial figure. What is more important to note is not daily numbers but the trend... which has been downwards over the last few weeks.

To me this (sadly) reflects the complexity and complications on the ground. Trying to collect and reconcile numbers on anything even within one organisational department is tough, try collating numbers and causes of deaths from all over the country and it’s a miracle we have any reported figures at all.

I believe the continuing high reported deaths (presumably from backlogged cases) shows us just how terrible the pandemic was between July and August. 

So many people were dying that the medical authorities simply could not keep up (see note 2). Our country has been severely hit and we only pray that we’ll eventually recover and heal as a nation. 

All this only underscores the fact that the only silver lining we can cling to right now is that, finally(!), the number of daily fatalities from Covid-19 are now — slowly but surely — falling.

* Note 1: Some will see this as the government manipulating numbers. To me, if that was true that we would not have seen consistent fatality figures north of 200 since August. The problem with conspiracy theories is not only are such views impossible to verify or pin down (and anyone can claim anything) one could never justify one’s belief in any number at all. Why even think Malaysia has a pandemic problem in the first place if you think the government is fooling around with the reporting?

** Note 2: Check out the graphs in the CovidNow website. It gives a very sober picture of steeply rising actual deaths (coupled with a lot of under-reported deaths!) from the end of June all the way until early August.

***This is the personal opinion of the columnist.