Rarely have people in Germany looked at numbers as intensively as during the Corona crisis. All the more dramatic that they hardly got us any further. Statistician Ralf Münnich judges: The huge data disaster surrounding Corona is a home-made problem.
The current incidence in Germany is 472.4, almost twice as high as a week ago. 92,344 people were newly infected with Corona. This was reported by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) on Wednesday morning. For more than two years, those responsible have been using these numbers to steer the fortunes of the country. A patchy data situation, the basis of which is currently becoming increasingly unreliable. This is due, for example, to the fact that fewer and fewer infected people are taking a PCR test – and therefore do not even appear in the statistics of corona cases.
After this pandemic period, Ralf Münnich, Chairman of the German Statistical Society, draws a devastating balance in an interview with FOCUS Online: “The huge data disaster surrounding the corona data in Germany is a home-made problem. “
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Fatal too: the decisive omissions happened two years ago and cannot be corrected in the short term. “If you want to do good statistics, you can’t do it in three months,” explains the professor at the University of Trier, looking ahead to autumn. “There’s also been a lot of wasted money that would have been better spent on a couple of data and statistics experts.”
Münnich is therefore addressing the question of how we can position ourselves for future crises with a mix of experts. “This absolutely requires different data experts – I would also like to emphasize statisticians who understand something about the business of data collection and production,” warns Münnich. “You are not currently being asked at all and you will not find many in Germany either, because unfortunately we have a very bad tradition here.” With this, Germany’s best-known survey statistician sums up the central problem and lists five serious errors in the corona statistics out:
It has long been known that the health authorities cannot keep up. This has been discussed often enough – even if little has changed in the structures there. Reports by fax still exist. “So that means it’s important on the one hand that digitization really progresses,” criticizes Münnich. “On the other hand, one should urgently consider adequate standardization.” There is a lack of awareness of the statistical quality that must be behind it. A larger data expert center with various players from different disciplines could help Germany here. Because the statistics alone do not help, but live from the interdisciplinary exchange in the various fields of application.
This leads directly to the next sticking point of the data catastrophe: “You just need the right statisticians,” the expert notes. “People who are really familiar with data collection and they don’t sit at the RKI.” Of course they have a statistics department there that is certainly doing good work in their generic area. The authority was particularly lacking in random sample experts, which is Münnich’s specialty. One would have wished that support had also been accepted here, for example in the discussion on determining regional incidences with random samples.
Are we measuring what we want to measure? Do the numbers we collect help us answer the question we want to answer? According to the chairman of the German Statistical Society, these fundamental questions have been asked too seldom. Too often those responsible in Germany simply used existing figures.
For example, if you want to learn how people feel over time after an illness, you need panel studies with study participants who have to be questioned again and again. It is more difficult with the current incidences. 2020 was about finding out how many people were really infected. “The RKI came with a sample of around 12,000 and wanted to use this to estimate incidences at district level. I was simply stunned!” says the expert. With a good 400 districts, an event that was still rare at the time (i.e. an infection) could hardly be measured on such a basis. “So that means the quality of the estimate is very poor,” says Münnich. “Then you would have to use real statistical high-tech to perhaps be able to correct that.”
The incidences could have been improved and stabilized at an early stage through suitable data collection and statistical instruments. Unfortunately, this did not happen with the responsible authorities.
Federalism undoubtedly has its advantages, but stands in the way of good and comparable statistical data when each country wants to impose its own ideas in such a dynamic crisis. The expert criticizes: “After more than two years of crisis, it is difficult for me to understand that every health authority still proceeds differently and that there are hardly any standards.”
Münnich considers data protection to be very important. Nevertheless, it was too often used as an excuse not to provide information. “In the event of a crisis, I think it’s problematic if a lot of places can veto again and again, so that nothing goes forward,” says the statistician.
The difficulty is that the RKI is a federal authority that depends on the Federal Ministry of Health. The Federal Statistical Office, which actually has the necessary data competencies, depends on the Federal Ministry of the Interior. That didn’t always turn out to be effective. In Germany, the Federal Statistics Act regulates how we handle data. Unfortunately, according to Münnich, it is “reactively formulated”. This means that a problem is identified, then legislation must take place and the statistics are only then carried out as legislation. “In real crises, this is a total catastrophe. We are always too late with that.”
According to Münnich, a data research institute would be needed to ensure that Germany is better prepared for the next pandemic or major challenges such as climate change. The experts from various disciplines could keep track of which data is available nationwide. The statistics professor explains: “Together with a proactively formulated statistics law, we would certainly be better prepared in the event of a crisis in the future!”