There’s an irony to making data-based decisions in the age of coronavirus: It’s never been more important—whether you’re a business leader, politician, or consumer—but it’s also never been more difficult to do well. Coronavirus has caused a data deluge, and not all of the information is as accurate, objective, or up-to-date as it seems.
On July 9, we held “How and When We’ll Recover, By the Numbers” a workshop to help our readers better understand which metrics matter most right now. If you missed it, don’t worry. Quartz members can watch the entire event above. Here are some of the key takeaways for anyone looking to better understand what all the Covid-19 data means.
No one statistic stands in for the whole picture.
Fatalities are two or three weeks “late”—meaning that by the time someone dies of Covid-related complications, they likely first fell ill nearly a month earlier. Hospitalizations and case counts shorten this delay slightly, but they all depend on how many people have been tested in total.
To get a full picture of the pandemic, governments need to look at case counts, hospitalizations, and fatalities all together. Only a combination of data points can give jurisdictions an idea of how many severe cases there are, how many presymptomatic or mild cases there are, and when certain resources are likely to be in high demand at what time.
Consider the practical implications of treatments or vaccines.
As scientists race to find ways to ease Covid-19’s symptoms or prevent infections altogether, remember that no medical intervention will ever be 100% effective for everyone. Certain drugs may work only for the sickest patients in intensive care, which is important for hospitals with limited space that need to treat as many people as possible. Forthcoming vaccines may have only 40% efficacy, in which case it’d make sense to prioritize individuals who are at the highest risk of developing severe cases of Covid-19.
Think about the economy at three speeds.
One way to navigate this level of uncertainty is to simultaneously keep tabs on what’s going on now, what’s expected in the next few quarters, and what the pandemic might reshape about how people work and spend money in the long term.
Keep an eye on prices.
What kind of recession—and recovery—we have will depend on what’s driving it. Is the problem mostly that companies can’t make products? Or is it that consumers don’t want to spend? Inflation can help us parse the situation. So far, prices are down, suggesting that consumers are driving the slowdown.
What will stick? Ask around.
It’s too early to tell which of the adaptations we’ve made to cope with Covid-19 will outlive it, but we can keep tabs on how things are evolving through surveys. Asking companies and employees how they’re working now and what they’re planning is our best shot at understanding what post-pandemic life will look like.
To see all of Dan’s slides on the charts and data Quartz reporters use to monitor Covid-19, you can download and view the PDF version here.