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Test positivity rate, deaths per million and ‘secular’ states: What the media won’t show you about coronavirus data in India

India has seen about 6 deaths per million people, which is among the lowest in the world. The US has seen 341 deaths per million, which is more than 50 times as many.

For our media, intellectuals, academics and activists, Gujarat is extra special. Gujarat being one of the worst Coronavirus affected states has come in very handy for India’s ‘secular’ lobby. They desperately needed an excuse for Delhi and Maharashtra.

But early signs have appeared that things are finally beginning to change in Gujarat. Most significantly, the test positivity rate in Gujarat has finally dropped to the national average.

Right away, you can understand what this indicates. Gujarat tested over 6500 people yesterday and found 513 cases. Delhi tested lesser people, around 5000, but found 1877 cases! In other words, the disease has spread much further in Delhi than in Gujarat.

This means at the very least that Gujarat is testing “enough,” or at least right about the national average, compared to the spread of the disease.

What is test positivity rate

Because there is a lot of misinformation around, let us explain in very simple terms what is the test positivity rate. This is the number of confirmed cases detected as a percentage of the number of tests.

In other words, the more widespread the testing, the bigger the denominator. Which would make the test positivity rate drop.

Conversely, if a state were to restrict testing, the test positivity rate would go up. Again, this should be simple to understand. For example, if you tested 100 people who are already in a Covid hospital ward, you would find all 100 of them positive. The test positivity rate would be 100%.

Now suppose you expand testing slightly. You only test those who are already showing severe symptoms such as shortness of breath. Not all of them would have Coronavirus, but the likelihood would be extremely high. The test positivity rate could be as high as 80%.

Suppose you expand testing even further, to those with mild symptoms. The test positivity rate would continue to drop. If you start testing even those who have come in contact with those having a fever, the rate would be even less. The wider you cast the net, the less likely you are to find someone who tests positive. Ultimately, if you tested all 130 crore Indians, the positivity rate would be close to 0%.

Tough questions

We should note here that neither India’s overall test positivity rate of 7.3% nor Gujarat’s 7.8% is reason to relax. Both numbers are still very high. But there is no longer any doubt that when it comes to testing, Gujarat has moved ahead on the curve compared to other hotspot states like Delhi and Maharashtra.

In particular, Delhi is doing the worst of all, with a terrifying test positivity rate of 35%!

That means our intellectuals and activists are going to have to do what they dislike most in the world: ask tough questions to the ‘secular’ governments of Delhi and Maharashtra. If they care about intellectual honesty, that is.

For three months, our intelligentsia has had Arjuna-like sharp focus on just one target: Gujarat. This, however, is a pandemic. So there is more than just one target. This means asking what ‘best CM’ is doing. It will hurt, I know.

Not just other states in India, we will have to look at countries across the world. By now, I hope you have noticed the clever sleight of hand in the way the Indian media reports Coronavirus statistics.

Indian media’s sleight of hand

The number of tests was reported as a percentage of population to show that India is lagging behind in testing.

The number of confirmed cases was reported in absolute numbers to prove that India is among the worst affected nations in the world.

If we strive for consistency instead of opportunism, we would see a very different picture.

India has seen about 6 deaths per million people, which is among the lowest in the world. The US has seen 341 deaths per million, which is more than 50 times as many. The numbers for major European countries are France (449), Germany (104), Italy (564), Spain (580) and UK (605).

In other words, the West has seen Coronavirus deaths at a rate that is generally 50-100 times more than India. The “best” performer is Germany, which has done 17 times worse than us.


No gap in testing and data collection can explain a gap as large as this. We are just going to have to accept that we are doing better than the West. For most Indians, that is cause for celebration. But not for all. Think of those Indians who have to write articles for New York Times, Washington Post and BBC. They need to eat too.

As for Gujarat, our intellectuals will need to find better reasons to criticize than words of some racist Brit from the last century.

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or may not be an Associate Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  

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