Never in the history of epidemiology has the general public had such unfettered access to data concerning an infectious disease. Global headlines are studded with milestone numbers: “Coronavirus latest: Global cases surpass 20 million,” “100,000 deaths from Covid-19.” Politicians, newly versed in virus matters, deliver daily updates outlining relevant figures and coronavirus data in their respective jurisdictions.

Newspaper articles are yet more zealous with their use of numerical data. Read one broadsheet per day, and you’ll receive a continuous stream of figures: PCR tests conducted, percentage of confirmed positive cases, seven-day averages across different regions, percentage of untraceable infections, number of hospitalized patients, number of secured hospital beds, total deaths, death rates in different demographics, threat levels in the health care system and on and on and on.

“For some people, [the data has] helped them understand what is happening. For other people it’s been misinterpreted and not very helpful,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a physician and senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security, told The New York Times.

That is the crux of the problem: data is a powerful tool, but an equally dangerous one when wielded by the wrong hands – just look how Twitter has given rise to misinformed armchair epidemiologists espousing varying levels of nonsense.

So, how can we parse the data to give ourselves a more illuminated view of the current crisis?

Covid-19 Upticks: Should We Be Worried?

When Covid-19 case numbers start rising, fear of the virus often charts an upwards trend alongside it. Tokyo (and Japan as a whole) logged record numbers around the turn of August – also coinciding with increased testing for the disease – causing certain prefectures to impose minor social restrictions to contain its spread.

Bars and restaurants in Tokyo have been asked to close at 10pm until the end of August if they want to remain eligible for a ¥200,000 government stipend, while Osaka governor, Hirofumi Yoshimura, urged his electorate to refrain from drinking or dining out in groups of five people or more.

Unilateral restrictions may have some utility in bringing down the daily number of confirmed cases. However, experts generally urge the public not to rely on a single data point as an indicator of how grave the situation is. Assessing the pandemic is an infinitely more complex task.

Coronavirus Data: The Numbers

Amid calls for state of emergency round 2, the Japanese government put forward six new criteria to help the central and prefectural governments determine the severity of the coronavirus crisis. These include: scarcity of hospital beds, number of patients and other virus carriers, rate of positive PCR tests, number of newly confirmed infections and a comparison between the current and previous week’s proportion of untraceable infections.

If certain thresholds within each category are surpassed, the overall threat level will likely be bumped up to its highest rating – stage 4 – at which point a state of emergency could theoretically return.

The thresholds are: 10 percent of PCR tests confirmed positive (irrespective of the number of tests conducted, this is presumed to be representative of the whole); 50 percent occupancy rate of the hospital beds secured for Covid-19 patients (which surpassed 90 percent in Tokyo during the first wave in May); 25 people per 100,000 confirmed as carriers of the disease (hospital patients or otherwise); 25 per 100,000 for weekly number of new infections.

Tokyo recently surpassed the threshold for two of the aforementioned categories, while Osaka, Aichi and Okinawa surpassed three apiece (prompting the latter two to declare prefectural state of emergencies).

But entangled within the web of overwhelming data, Japan is still left with cause for optimism.

Is There Cause for Optimism?

“Japan’s entire coronavirus death toll since January — about 1,052 deaths — is roughly what the United States sees in a day. Even as Japan discovers new infection clusters, its overall recorded case load of 49,605 is less than that of the Bronx,” wrote Tokyo-based columnist William Pesek in The Washington Post on August 10.

Though Prime Minister Abe’s approval rating has plummeted as the nation’s desire for more direct coronavirus policies has skyrocketed, things could evidently be worse.

Deaths from Covid-19 are still uncommon in Japan (hovering around 2% of all confirmed cases), and are almost unheard of in people aged 40 and under. More than half of the 1,000-plus to have lost their lives were over 80 years old, while significant percentages were in their late-60s and 70s. 468 of the total fatalities were recorded back in May; considerably more than any month since.

We also don’t track other diseases in the same way we’ve been doing with Covid-19. If we did, many of us would never leave the house again. Let’s take one of the most harrowing statistics – total deaths – as an example.

Influenza alone is estimated to kill between 250,000–500,00 annually. The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed approximately 50 million worldwide – 250 million if inflated for today’s population – without the levels of globalization and mass air travel that facilitated Covid-19’s transfer across borders. Even the Hong Kong influenza (H3N2) pandemic of 1968, which garnered a comparatively tiny footnote in history, killed approximately a million people. Tuberculosis kills more each year.

‘No Magic Number’

Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert who wrote a prescient book, Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, which theorized a global pandemic caused from a flu-like virus originating in a Chinese wet market, has said there is “no magic number” for making sense of this.

Data is a great translator of a crisis into quantitative layman’s terms. But how it is interpreted, shapes one’s perspective. Covid-19 has killed 735,000 and infected over 20 million people worldwide (accurate as of August 11). Those numbers will rise, but maybe it is time to stop focusing on constantly rising individual figures, and start seeing the forest through the trees.