Millennium Post

A curious pattern: India's COVID-19 data puzzle

New Delhi: Something very interesting happened on Saturday when the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) released its daily bulletin on the total number of tests and the total number of positive cases. The ICMR pegged India's total COVID-19 tally at 16,365. The only problem, however, is that four hours ago, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) had put the total number of cases at 14,792 - leaving a difference of 1,573.

Now, of course, it makes sense that the ICMR update will have a higher number than MoHFW, given that ICMR's number is as of 9 pm and MoHFW's number is as of 5 pm. But as per data on Saturday, India had detected more than 1,500 positive cases in four hours - which is higher than the highest number of cases reported by India in 24 hours till now. Till now, the highest number of cases reported in 24 hours has been at 1,463.

Significantly, this is not the only anomaly that seems to be appearing in the way India is reporting its COVID-19 numbers. Since the beginning of April when authorities had finally managed to standardise data dissemination after a bout of discrepancies due to poor coordination, a curious pattern of anomalies has emerged. Since April 2, India has been putting out COVID-19 data three times a day, leading to three data points for total positive cases per day - Morning and Evening data from MoHFW and Nightly data directly from ICMR. As per regulations, data presented by MoHFW is also compiled and provided by the ICMR.

Starting from April 3, the ICMR tally of total COVID-19 cases as of 9 pm has been higher than the MoHFW tally as of 5 pm - but only on Fridays and Saturdays. On April 3 and 4, this trend continued, which adds up as ICMR data is more current than the MoHFW data on the same day. However, for the next five days, the ICMR data (which is supposed to be more current) was lower than the MoHFW data. This pattern of 2-5 has been going on for the last three weeks. Every Friday and Saturday, the numbers seem to add up and from Sunday to Thursday, the numbers do not make sense.

Considering the above data from official authorities, on April 3, ICMR data showed 106 more cases than the MoHFW evening data. On April 4, this difference was 41. However, from April 5 to April 9, the ICMR's total COVID-19 cases were less than MoHFW total as of earlier and the difference was in the negative. The reason this is puzzling is that every day, the ICMR data is supposed to be higher than the Ministry's evening update. And even if it is not higher, the ICMR number should at least be equal to the Ministry's number. What is inexplicable, however, is the fact that ICMR's 9 pm data is less than MoHFW's 5 pm data.

And now with Saturday's ICMR data, more puzzling questions have come up. For instance, ICMR said that as of 9 pm on Saturday, India had a total of 16,365 COVID-19 cases but MoHFW data from Sunday 8 am showed that India had a total of 15,712 cases. So, how is it that the total number (Note that this is not the number of active cases) of COVID-19 cases fell by 653 in the 11 hours between 9 pm on Saturday and 8 am on Sunday?

This anomaly, however, is unique, based on an analysis of the comparison between data points as of 9 pm and 8 am the following day. The table below shows that since April 2, the data checks out - as in the data as of 8 am is higher than data as of 9 pm the previous night. However, this trend was disturbed for the first time when on Sunday morning, the total number of COVID-19 cases was less than the total on Saturday night - and by a significant margin.

Even though both the ICMR and the Ministry of Health had to play catch up with each other to standardise the time of daily COVID-19 bulletins in the midst of what ICMR officials have earlier called "coordination problems", India's official data on the Coronavirus crisis keeps throwing up puzzling patterns that continue to be inexplicable.

The fact that ICMR data (more current) is lower than the Ministry's data on the same day, is anyway an anomaly. But then what is allowing for the numbers to flip every Friday and Saturday when the ICMR data becomes higher than the Ministry data? And then, of course, there is Saturday's anomaly - where more cases were reported in four hours than the highest 24-hour number so far.

At the end of the day, India is putting out three data points every day and with these anomalies, it is resulting in questions about what the actual data is. Such continued discrepancies beg the answer to: Why is it that the ICMR and Health Ministry are unable to effectively communicate about COVID-19 data with each other? And why is it that the two authorities are yet to come to an understanding of how to put out consistent COVID-19 numbers once a day?

While in the last week of March, the Ministry had come to an understanding that ICMR would stop its bulletin and all data will be disseminated from the MoHFW; this arrangement had to be junked because the Ministry was not updating testing numbers submitted by the ICMR - which eventually led to ICMR resuming its 9 pm daily bulletins, leading to a fresh data puzzle with respect to India's Coronavirus numbers.

On Sunday evening, the Health Ministry's data showed a total of 16,116 COVID-19 cases - still 249 less than what ICMR had reported at 9 pm on Saturday. However, the MoHFW added a note on Sunday, saying it is currently reconciling the data discrepancy with the ICMR.

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