The high cost of SA's hopelessly wrong pandemic models

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The first official prediction of how many ICU beds would be used in the Western Cape by COVID-19 patients, made back in May, overestimated by between 12 times and 16.5 times the critical care beds needed. this illustrates how, at almost every step of South Africa’s COVID-19 battle, the official models have been of little help. Katharine Child, writing in Financial Mail explores the cost of getting these models so wrong.

Pandemic Data & Analytics (Panda), a group of economists, statisticians and actuaries, have publicly criticised modellers by name, making them highly unpopular. But Panda members argue that getting it wrong has serious economic implications for the country. Says Panda founder Nick Hudson: “The modellers pretend that their models have no bearing on government decisions. We think it is obvious that their outlandish death forecasts have a bearing on policy-making …The models provide a fig leaf of rationality and are hence part of the causal structure of lockdown.”

Had there been no forecasts, he says, Panda would be taking the government to court, arguing to end the state of disaster on the basis that it is irrational.

Of course, the report says, it’s hard to say now whether the predictions for nationwide deaths by year-end will be proven correct. National Institute of Communicable Diseases epidemiologist Dr Harry Moultrie asks: “Did we overestimate COVID-19 deaths in the Western Cape? The brief answer is we don’t know yet.”

While the model’s fatality predictions for South Africa as a whole appear to be roughly accurate, Moultrie admitted that COVID-19 deaths have “unexpectedly” plateaued in the Western Cape over the past three weeks.

The report says Panda, which predicted the Western Cape deaths to date far more accurately, feels there is no excuse for getting it so wrong. They want modellers to retract their models.

But, the report says, Moultrie disagrees, and says Panda’s vilification is misplaced. “Instead the focus should be on trying to understand why the Western Cape has a lower than predicted death rate, including being lower than global case fatality rates, and on urgently planning for the peak that is expected in other provinces,” he says.

Full Katharine Child analysis in Financial Mail

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