China’s not the only country with unreliable COVID-19 data

China is currently facing a massive COVID-19 surge, after ending many of its stringent “zero COVID” policies in December. Some estimates suggest that the country is experiencing over a million new cases each day, and widespread travel over the Lunar New Year later this month will likely prolong the surge.

Among U.S. media outlets covering the situation, a common topic is China’s lack of reliable COVID-19 data. For example: “The country no longer tallies asymptomatic infections or reliably reports COVID deaths—employing not the distortion of statistics but their omission,” writes Dhruv Khullar in The New Yorker.

Articles like Khullar’s accurately describe how difficult it is to understand the scale of COVID-19’s impact on a country without accurate data. But they fail to explain that this is far from a uniquely Chinese problem. In fact, many of the same claims that writers and health experts have made about China could also apply to the U.S., albeit on a different scale.

Some examples:

  • Without widespread PCR testing, officially-reported case counts are likely significant underestimates of true infections.
  • Public health agencies are no longer doing widespread contact tracing or attempting to track asymptomatic cases.
  • Official death statistics are also likely underestimates, due to errors and omissions on death certificates.
  • Unchecked spread of the virus could contribute to the development of new variants that evade prior infections and/or vaccinations, but such variants will be hard to quickly identify due to low testing rates.

This Twitter thread, from the writer and podcast host Artie Vierkant, shows the similarities pretty clearly:

Don’t get me wrong—the current surge in China is an immense tragedy. But we can’t talk about it in a vacuum, or ignore the very similar problems plaguing the U.S. and many other countries. Poor COVID-19 data is, unfortunately, a global issue right now.

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