Coronavirus: numbers matter

Sent On: 
Thu, 2020-03-19
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Father and a daughter wearing a face mask, amid growing concerns about the global outbreak of the Corona virus (Covid-19) - Photo by Mohamed Shokry


Egyptian authorities have withdrawn the press card of the Guardian correspondent in Egypt and issued a warning to the New York Times correspondent for presenting disputed exaggerated figures about the number of people infected in Egypt with the coronavirus. Both newspapers have a great reputation, but this does not mean that all their articles are flawless. I have, throughout the years noted substantial differences from journalist to journalist. Check our database and see previous media critiques we have written.


The Egyptian State Information Service (SIS) issued on March 17 the following statement:


First: The State Information Service, through its role in following up what is published about Egypt in the foreign media, has monitored the release of a press report in the British newspaper The Guardian on Sunday 15/3/2020, which includes incorrect numbers and estimates regarding the numbers of cases infected with Coronavirus in Egypt.


It also monitored a group of tweets published by the American newspaper New York Times in Egypt, which included the same incorrect and exaggerated numbers, which raised a lot of confusion in Egypt and in the whole world, which follows with great concern everything related to this danger that threatens all of humanity.


Cornelis Hulsman: The New York Times bureau chief had tweeted that the number of people infected with the Coronavirus is 19,000. He later deleted this (Egypt Today, March 16, 2020). The Guardian correspondent referred to unnamed “infectious disease specialists from the University of Toronto,” who “estimated an outbreak size of 19,310 cases in Egypt,” based on flight data, traveler data and infection rates (Guardian, March 15, 2020).


“After consulting with the Ministry of Health and Population, the Egyptian cabinet denied on Monday news circulating about the infection of 19,000 citizens with Coronavirus” (Egypt Today, March 16, 2020). This number, obviously, appears to be highly speculative. The last figure of the Egyptian government is 210 infected and 6 deaths. 28 have recovered. This is a very small number in comparison to a population of over 100 million inhabitants. If the number would have been substantially higher Egypt's hospitals would have noticed this and this would have been known.


The statement of the Egyptian State Information Service continues:


Second: In the face of the violations and violations of all the rules of journalistic work that are known in Egypt and the world, and the deliberations of  The Guardian and the tweets of the New York Times reporter, he deliberately misled about a very serious issue. 3/2020 Both the Guardian reporter who prepared the report, as well as the New York Times reporter, were confronted with the professional excesses and tweets involved in the report and tweets, and intentionally offended and misled them, including:


The correspondents relied on a single authority as a source of this important data and information, while the journalistic work rules require relying on more than one source to confirm the information before publication. And this only source is an anonymous Canadian doctor who said that he conducted a study based on arbitrary estimates of international air traffic and passenger numbers, which are false conclusions, unrelated to facts, and a WHO statement was issued indicating that this study is based on guesses, and the organization does not accept dependence on guesses like this.


None of the reporters was interested in taking the opinion of the parties involved in the issue into what is being published as the rules of the press require in the whole world, and at the forefront of these parties: the concerned authorities in Egypt, especially the Ministry of Health, as well as the World Health Organization, both in its Cairo office and its main center in Europe.


The fact that the reporters hastily promoted incorrect data does not justify relying on an unpublished, unjustified and unrecognized study in the prestigious academic and scientific authorities in the world, but it reveals the bad intention of the reporters mentioned to harm Egyptian interests and offend the image of the situation in Egypt.


The Egyptian Ministry of Health has denied in an official statement these arbitrary estimates, as well as the World Health Organization, which praised the efforts of the Egyptian state and praised its cooperation and work transparently against this epidemic. In addition, the Egyptian reality is available to hundreds of foreign correspondents accredited to Egypt who roam freely in all throughout the country they see the reality and can monitor any situations or phenomena on the ground.


The President of the State Information Service demanded that all correspondents come from those who can name any cases of injury or death from this disease other than what the Egyptian state announces.


Cornelis Hulsman: I don’t know the two correspondents and don’t know if this was deliberate or not. I, however, know that many correspondents don’t trust government figures, and this gives parties that exaggerate a change to come in with the wildest claims. This is obvious where it comes to claims about the number of Christians in Egypt. This is repeatedly exaggerated. I have compared government statistics with estimates from various Christian sources whereby government statistics are provided with a clear a logical data collection system while with figures presented by these Christian sources fully lack this. The Guardian article refers to unnamed specialists of the University of Toronto. I personally believe that sources should be mentioned, certainly if this concerns a reference to (so-called) specialists.


From reading different media it is obvious that people have been speculating about numbers in other countries. Thus this does not only concern numbers in relation to Egypt. We should not speculate and not give credit to speculation but rely on numbers provided by the ministries of health in different countries.


The statement of the Egyptian State Information Service continues with a third point:


In the face of these professional abuses, which exceed the limits of the accreditation granted to reporters, which is based on the practice of professional journalistic work that respects the norms of the established press, and given the repeated intentional abuse, especially by the Guardian correspondent and professional abuses by the New York Times, and given not having any of the reporters apologize for the professional abuses he committed that have wide negative effects. Therefore, the State Information Service, according to the Egyptian laws and regulations, as well as international law and rules for the work of foreign correspondents in different countries of the world, have decided the following:


 • Withdrawing the accreditation of the correspondent of the Guardian newspaper in Egypt, with all the consequences of that carried out by the competent authorities.


• The General Information Authority requests the Guardian newspaper to publish an apology for this report full of professional errors, in the same way as publishing the aforementioned report according to press norms, and in the event of non-response, all available legal measures will be taken, including closing and withdrawing the accreditation of the newspaper’s office in Egypt.


• A warning was issued to the correspondent of the American newspaper New York Times in Egypt that it is necessary to respect the rules of the journalistic profession in his journalistic work in Egypt, which are the rules approved by the newspaper in which he works himself.


• The General Information Authority praises the professional performance of many international press institutions that have offices and correspondents in Egypt, and no attempts were raised or tampered with, similar to what the two correspondents did .. The Information Authority appeals to everyone to adhere to the principles of the globally established journalistic profession and to take into account the nature of the current stage In which all humanity faces threats that threaten everyone and cannot tolerate such journalistic excitement and manipulation of the nerves of humans ... The Information Agency stresses that it will not tolerate such practices from any party.


Head of the State Information Service


Cornelis Hulsman: In all my years of reporting and media research I have learned to be extremely cautious with claims from so-called experts. It is also so common to exaggerate numbers as I have seen with claims about the number of Christians in Egypt. Many journalists have not investigated these numbers as I have done. Most journalists and even scholars have reported for years a percentage of 10% “as the most likely estimate since this is most commonly reported proportion in media and on the internet” while sufficient evidence indicates that the percentage may be closer to 6%.  See my report “Discrepancies Between Coptic Statistics in the Egyptian Census and Estimates Provided by the Coptic Orthodox Church, MIDEO (2012), pp 419-482.


Numbers can have a tremendous impact on a discussion. In the case of the coronavirus inflated numbers create fear. If then there is no solid basis for such numbers media should at least report that these are disputed but not claim facts that indeed are only guesses.


The response of Egyptian authorities to withdraw a journalist’s press card may seem harsh but there has been a longstanding frustration with repeated instances of misreporting. Arab-West Report has throughout the years made summary translations of Egyptian Arabic media where at times this can be observed.



Cairo, March 19, 2020


Cornelis Hulsman,


Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report