Are we really seeing a second European spike?

Are we really seeing a second European spike?

You’ve probably seen the graphs, cases are way up in France, even higher than the first wave, and yet deaths hardly seem to be up at all. Yet if you compare the latest number of deaths recorded, 130 for the week ending 3 September, they’re slightly higher than the 123 deaths in the week in March when the country locked down. 

Meanwhile, in the UK, cases continue to rise with just under 3,000 new infections announced over the last two consecutive days. The deputy chief medical officer said last night that the rise is deeply concerning and that Brits had ‘relaxed too much’.

Should we be panicking? Are we about to see another spike in hospitalisation and the inevitable corresponding spike in deaths? It seems to me that the headbangers arguing ‘it’s only cases’ and those crying ‘stay locked down forever’ are both wrong. This is something that can only be seen when you look at the numbers correctly.

Those who suggest that all this is the result of more testing (leading to an increase in the number of recorded positive cases) are right to say that recorded cases are not the same as the actual number of infections. We have a lot more testing now, and so the first peak may have been 20 to 50 times higher than it looks. But there’s a more important point about cases, which you can only see if you plot them correctly.

The point is – and I can’t believe I’m having to say this after six months – but the numbers have to be plotted on a logarithmic scale. What really matters isn’t the height of the peaks in case numbers – that’s something that is partly determined by the number of tests – but how fast they go up. As I wrote back in April, linear graphs are hard to read because the numbers involved can grow quickly. Instead, a logarithmic graph is more instructive – where the scale goes from 10 to 100 to 1,000 etc. – because it removes the exponential element. 

You cannot see the rate of infection, the speed at which the virus is spreading, on a linear scale. Whereas on a log scale it all becomes clear: cases are going up, but nowhere near as fast as they did the first time around. In France, it looks like the number of cases is doubling every two weeks or so, whereas they were doubling every 3.5 days in March.