How to Fake Your COVID Numbers
A guide for morally dubious government functionaries
So, you’re the head of a government. Or the minister of health. Or heck, the minister of tourism or economics or labor. Maybe you want to protect your health management job by appearing more competent than you are. Maybe you want voters to see your leadership as successful. Maybe you think you can trick the economy into improving. Maybe you need lots of tourists to keep your economy afloat. Whoever you are and whatever your motivation, you’re in charge of a country or a large part of one, and you want your COVID numbers to be better than they are.
I know what you’re thinking. Just cover it all up. Whatever data you collect, make it a national secret. Call it treason to release or discuss COVID numbers. Insist to the world that you have zero cases of COVID, just like you have zero cases of HIV or measles. Let Turkmenistan and North Korea be your role models, and lie your way to excellent numbers.
The thing is, you have to be seriously committed to authoritarianism to keep your data locked down so tight. You need to be murdering and exiling people all over the place to protect your big lie. If your motivation is tourism or national prestige, being a murderous authoritarian dictatorship is at the very least counterproductive.
Plus, if you want to manage your epidemic, you need to be testing and tracking and treating and so on. That means someone on some level has some data. You either refuse to engage with the virus at all – collect no data - or you double down on imprisonment and torture and murder to keep those numbers secret. Either way your own population realizes pretty fast they’re being lied to, and then you have to ramp up the oppression even more. It takes a lot of resources.
Also, let’s face it – this looks fishy. No one actually believes that Turkmenistan and North Korea have zero cases of COVID. They’re not attracting tourism or investment.
But don’t worry, morally dubious government functionary! There are subtler ways to do this. You can conceal your numbers with less effort and more plausibility. Check out these four effective ways of making sure no one understands your COVID data and everything looks just fine:
1. Confuse the issue. This is still solidly in the flat out lies territory, but it gives you a little more space to take action on COVID. You do the appropriate amount of testing and treating people, and you collect the data. But you classify some cases as COVID and some as another illness. Call it atypical pneumonia, or unidentified respiratory virus. If you do a bit of googling, you can find at least one post-Soviet country reporting both COVID and a mystery virus during mid-2020.
This is an approach for countries that have strengths. You need health systems and health care providers who care about their patients, and populations that expect to get accurate-ish information from their governments. This kind of lie lets you collect data and take action, and also release numbers that resemble the situation people see in their lives. In a population with close-knit communities and multigenerational family networks, people will notice an epidemic ripping through. Claiming there is a mild epidemic and also some other virus gives them a story to match what they see - while keeping your COVID numbers down.
2. Fake the tests. In this approach, you get your diagnostic labs to fake their test results. People go in, get proper PCR or RAT tests, and then they get results based on political needs rather than their viral status. This is horrible. It keeps people from getting treatment and it encourages the spread of the virus.
But if you don’t have much treatment available or you really don’t care if the virus spreads, it can both keep a frustrated population from rising up against you and keep your official numbers down. If you’re a government having trouble holding on to power, or in desperate need of tourist money, or both, and you don’t care about health, this is a solid approach. It also gives you very detailed influence over your numbers. You can tweak them by demographic, like schoolchildren, men of working age, or the elderly. You can make sure all your cases happen to old people and kids never get sick.
To make this work, you need to restrict access to COVID testing to the labs you can control. This might mean government labs, or it might mean keeping very close hold over private labs. You could seal the deal by issuing public health guidance that all positive COVID tests need to be confirmed through government laboratory testing. This gives you the change to negate any positive results, or keep your positivity rate at a level that works for you politically. Limiting access to home-based RAT testing helps to support this approach.
To pull it off, you need a functioning central medical authority – department of health and human services, ministry of health, health regulatory agency. If your health system is too large and diffuse, you’ll never keep hold of everything.
3. Implement bad policies. In the dishonest but not flat-out lying category, you can keep your numbers down by not testing enough people. You may recall Donald Trump mentioning that – when you test you just find more COVID. So if you test less, you record fewer cases and your numbers look great.
There are lots of ways to test less. You can do it by limiting test supplies so they run out at a certain time every day or every month and testing just isn't possible. (This is easiest in a small country with a centralized economy.) You can only recommend or provide testing for people who meet very stringent criteria – people who are symptomatic, people who are highly symptomatic, people with a documented COVID exposure. Or you can nudge your free market and make sure COVID testing is so expensive that people avoid it.
If you need an example to follow, right now there are plenty commentators stating that India is keeping numbers down by under-testing. I would guess the same thing is true in Russia, though I suspect they are using every obfuscation strategy at once.
4. Hide your data in plain sight.
Finally, you can be honest and transparent in the least helpful way possible. You can effectively collect accurate data and you can test the right number of people for the right reasons. You can give them accurate test results. And then you can release the data – already analyzed in odd ways, with no raw numbers. Or just the raw data all at once in a format that makes it impossible to easily import the data into programs that can work with it. A PDF, or even better an image of a PDF. Use confusing acronyms as your labels and make everyone who wants to work with your numbers retype everything. You can release incomplete data and then release the next batch in a different format and with different calculation methods so it’s not comparable.
Or you release unhelpful indicators - report on hospitalization data instead of infection data. Don’t include the length of hospital stay or what level of care was required. Report infection data but don’t report on severity. Don’t define long-COVID and insist it’s too soon to report on it because it’s not properly defined. Take a really long time to release all your data because you want it to be complete and error-free – so long that it’s no longer useful in real time or for future predictions.
This is particularly suited to big countries that can't control all that much yet have a central public health authority that's expected to provide numbers.
 This is related but not identical to the non-governmental disinformation approach that focuses on “died from covid” vs “died with covid.”
It's amazing, amazing to me. So many of the kids we used to know in school, who didn't like to do homework, they like to "lead" the world. Fashion themselves - leaders. Those, No Homework for Me Kids, all grown up now, leading the world. And then, I think to self. So much work, creating nonsense, tricks with smoke and mirrors. Would it not be easier, less work, to just do - your homework?