Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); }
Coronavirus information
Coronavirus information
The Zero Canada Project provides resources to help you manage your health, your finances and your family life as Canada reopens.
Visit the hub

At time of writing, Canada had roughly 18,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. On its own, this does not tell us much. Is 18,000 a lot or a little? Only by comparison with some other benchmark – with previous experience, with other countries, with hospital capacity, with the population – can we begin to make sense of it.

Even then, the numbers can be deceiving. Early in the pandemic, the relatively small numbers then reported caused people to underestimate the threat. Now that the numbers are starting to wane, the tendency is to overestimate it.

So it’s worth bearing in mind a few key points as you scan the case numbers each day.

Story continues below advertisement

One: It’s not where the numbers are that matters, so much as where they’re going. More significant than the total number of cases, or even the number of new cases, is the ratio between them: the rate of growth. Or more particularly, the effect of compounding that rate of growth over several intervals. A caseload that looks trivial today can be overwhelming in a few days.

Two: We are not at a point in time, but on a curve. Simply comparing how many cases each country has, or even how fast they are growing, does not tell us much, as both will depend on what stage the pandemic is at in each country. Comparisons are better made not on a given day, but at similar numbers of days after each country’s outbreak began.

Three: Forecasting models are only as good as the assumptions built into them. Simple straight-line extrapolations of current growth rates into the future can produce some truly eye-popping projections. But much can change in the interim – particularly human behaviour. Indeed, it is the point of current government policy around physical distancing to change our conduct.

Of course, should behaviour change as governments would wish, actual outcomes will be less terrifying than the models had originally forecast. This is not evidence that the policy was unnecessary: Rather, it is evidence that it worked.

And it is working. In most countries where the epidemic hit hardest and earliest, growth rates have dropped substantially. Only two weeks ago, the number of reported cases in western Europe, where the epicentre of the disease shifted after its initial outbreak in China, was growing by about 15 per cent per day. By last week it had dropped to 10 per cent; it is now at around five.

In Canada, likewise, rates have fallen over the same period, albeit from a higher level: from 25 per cent to 15 per cent to less than 8 per cent. Is that evidence that we are doing worse at combating the disease? No. Remember point two: the virus arrived here two weeks later than Europe; they’ve had more time to fall from their peak. Adjusting for our different start dates, our numbers, both in total and as a rate of growth, compare quite favourably.

I know, I know: case counts are a highly flawed measure. These are reported, not actual cases. They tell us how many people have tested positive for the disease, but given how few people have been tested (about 1 per cent of Canada’s population) and how selectively the tests have been applied (mostly those showing symptoms), the likelihood is that they underestimate the actual numbers by a wide margin.

Story continues below advertisement

That makes them imperfect, yes. It doesn’t make them worthless. You just have to interpret them carefully.

In fact, accounting for how the number of tests performed affects the number of cases reported actually suggests the situation is rather better than the reported numbers show. Because the number of tests has also been growing, rapidly – from just under 24,000 across Canada on March 14, to almost 400,000. If the actual number of cases exceeds the reported number today, it did so by an even wider margin in weeks past – which means the fall in the reported number likely understates the fall in the actual number.

In any event, case numbers turn out to be a reasonable proxy for the numbers we are more interested in, such as hospitalizations, ICU occupation, and deaths. These are all growing, faster than we’d like, but slower than they were – and slower than they were projected to. In Ontario, for instance, the number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs was projected by the province’s health department, just last week, to exceed 750 by now – and that was the “best case” scenario. The actual number, as of Tuesday: 233.

We are not by any means out of the woods. Nor can we let down our guard any time soon. But if you thought things were hopeless, or the policy wasn’t working, you’re wrong. It’s working.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

In the interests of public health and safety, our coronavirus news articles are free for anyone to access. However, The Globe depends on subscription revenue to support our journalism. If you are able, please subscribe to globeandmail.com. If you are already a subscriber, thank you for your support.

Your subscription helps The Globe and Mail provide readers with critical news at a critical time. Thank you for your continued support. We also hope you will share important coronavirus news articles with your friends and family. In the interest of public health and safety, all our coronavirus news articles are free for anyone to access.

Follow related topics

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies