The mathematical model Pakistan is using to predict the course of COVID-19

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed relief that the number of COVID-19 cases in his country were lower than forecast. (AP Photo)
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Updated 22 May 2020

The mathematical model Pakistan is using to predict the course of COVID-19

  • Forecasts are reevaluated every week, expert tells Arab News  
  • Officials predict cases will not peak until mid-June

ISLAMABAD: In a televised address on May 15, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed relief that the number of COVID-19 cases in his country were lower than forecast. “As per our predictions, by May 14 Pakistan was expected to have 52,695 cases and 1,324 deaths,” he told the nation.

According to government statistics, however, the official figure at that point was slightly over 37,000 infections, while 803 people had died. “Thankfully, we are still below projections,” Khan said.

Those projections are determined by a team of scientists and doctors. One of the former is Ahsan Ahmed. He and his team, who are based throughout Pakistan as well as abroad, use the “Susceptible-Exposed-Infectious-Recovered (SEIR)” mathematical model to predict the development of the COVID-19 outbreak in Pakistan.

The SEIR model divides the population into four categories: Those who are susceptible to the virus and could potentially catch the disease; the exposed — people who might have the virus but show no symptoms; the infectious — active cases; and the recovered.
The same model has been used successfully in the past to understand the outbreak of Ebola, SARS and Zika. It was also used in Wuhan, China, to assess how COVID-19 would spread.

Ahmed told Arab News over the phone from Islamabad that his team is “meticulous” when extrapolating data from across the country, ensuring that there are few if any, inaccuracies. 

Their estimates are revised weekly, taking into account the actual numbers, and presented to Pakistian’s National Command and Control Centre (NCOC), which is tasked with devising a strategy to counter the pandemic in the country. A private data-modeling company in Karachi called Love For Datam and officials from UNICEF are also providing technical support. Love for Data was unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News.

When comparing official figures with forecasted ones, Ahmed explained, “The trend we are noticing is that they are pretty much aligned.” 

Both Ahmed and Atta-ur-Rehman, the additional secretary at the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination, declined to comment on forecasts for the near future, explaining that those figures would only be disclosed to the NCOC. However, Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry has tweeted that Pakistan is expected to see an increase in COVID-19 cases up until mid-June.

Independent forecasters predict the same. Jan Fiete Grosse-Oetringhaus and Zafar Yasin, who are affiliated with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, have done their own modeling using the SEIR model. Yasin agrees with Chaudhry that Pakistan will likely reach its peak of daily cases by the middle of next month. 

By then, he estimates, the number of confirmed cases could be between 200,000 and 350,000 or more, and deaths between 4,000 and 7,000.

But Yasin is also concerned that there has been a mismatch between Pakistan’s forecasted figures and its official ones so far, considering the usual accuracy of the SEIR model.

“In Pakistan, it seems that the confirmed cases (based on model predictions) should be 80,000 by now, but we are in the range of 43,000,” Yasin told Arab News. “When the same model was used for different countries in Europe, it gave reliable results, but for Pakistan, it is showing a different trend.”

One reason for this discrepancy, Yasin believes, could be that Pakistan is not carrying out enough tests per capita. At this point, the country should be testing between 40,000-50,000 people daily, he said. As of May 20, Pakistan was testing around 13,000 people per day in a population of more than 207 million.

Yasin explained that the fewer people are being tested, the less accurate the SEIR model will be, and the less will be known about the actual number of people infected.

Earlier this month, Science Magazine published a study by international scientists tracking the spread of COVID-19, which estimated that for every known case there are five to ten people who are infected without knowing it.

In his May 15 address, the prime minister also claimed that — because the number of COVID-19 cases in Pakistan was below forecasted figures — hospitals still had space to treat COVID-19 patients, and the pressure on the healthcare system was not that great.  

But health officials and frontline healthcare workers disagree. Even if government figures are below those forecasted, they say, hospitals are already almost at full capacity with patients suffering from COVID-19.

Dr. Nasir Azim Kakar, a pulmonologist at the Fatima Jinnah Chest Hospital in Pakistan’s poorest province, Balochistan, told Arab News that he and his colleagues receive a large number of patients daily.

“If earlier we were examining five patients a day, now we are examining three times that,” he said. “These days, when we receive patients, we face a major shortage of ICU beds, ventilators, and a shortage of staff, especially for the ICU.”

  • With additional reporting by Nazar ul Islam


India’s crazy-rich temples get wealthier by the day

India hosts some of the world’s wealthiest temples including the Shiva Temple (pictured), with some earning donations worth more than some businesses. (Files/Reuters)
Updated 10 August 2020

India’s crazy-rich temples get wealthier by the day

  • With assets worth billions of dollars, historians say donations offer validation to many

NEW DELHI: Vinod Tawde donates a kilogram of gold each time he visits the Tirupati Temple, located in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, every year.

“This has been a tradition in my family to visit the Tirupati Temple at least once every year. Sometimes I visit twice also if I get a good business deal. The offerings to the temple is a way of thanking God for blessing me,” the Mumbai-based builder told Arab News.

He is not alone. Under normal circumstances, the nearly 300-year-old Tirupati Temple would be frequented by 100,000 people every day, earning $120 million in gifts and donations annually, while its total worth is estimated to be $11 billion.
However, since a nationwide lockdown was imposed in March, it has impacted the footfall to all places of worship across the country.
India is home to some of the world’s wealthiest temples, with some earning more in donations every year than a successful business enterprise.
According to a 2015 assessment by the World Gold Council, India’s temples hold about 2,000 tons of gold, worth about $100 billion, while the country’s central bank placed the value at 557.7 tons of gold based on its 2013 estimate.
One among these is the Shirdi Temple, located in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Less than 100 years old, it is very popular among devotees and holds wealth worth $100 million.
Next in line is the 200-year-old Siddhivinayak Temple in India’s financial capital of Mumbai, which is said to have assets worth $20 million.
However, none of these are a patch on the 1,000-year-old Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram, in Kerala, which historians believe is worth $20 billion, making it India’s and one of the world’s richest temples.
“No other temple in the world has claimed to have so many antiques as the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple claims to have. Only one vault of the temple has been opened; imagine its wealth when the other vaults are opened,” Lekshmy Rajeev, a Kerala-based poet and temple historian, told Arab News.
The temple came to national and international consciousness in 2011 when one of its vaults was opened, yielding sacks of gold coins, diamonds and antique jewelry.
 The other vault has not been opened yet; the royal family believes doing so would bring bad luck. With the kind of wealth the temple has, one can build 10 Burj Khalifas, the world’s tallest building (2,717 feet), worth $1.5 billion.
The temple came under the spotlight recently over ownership claims, with its former royals taking the matter to court.
It follows a 2011 decision by the Kerala high court to give the state ownership of the ancient religious place following the death of its head, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, the last ruling Maharaja of Travancore in 1991.
On July 13 this year, the apex court reinstated ownership of the temple to its former royal, overruling the 2011 ruling of the Kerala high court.
“We allow the appeal of the royal family of Travancore. Death does not affect Shebaitship (management and maintenance of the deity) of the Travancore Family,” the two-member bench said in the order.
It ruled that a new committee set up by the Travancore royal family would run the temple and decide what to do with its wealth, including the contents of an unopened vault.
“A large number of devotees had prayed for us. The judgment is their victory,” a member of the former royal family, Gauri Lakshmi Bai, told reporters after the verdict in Thiruvananthapuram at the time.
The apex court verdict has ignited the old debate about who should manage the temple and whether the wealth of religious places can be used for the public good.
Experts, however, are divided on the matter. “The Supreme Court did not leave the administration of the temple to the former royal family, as many thought and quickly interpreted. There are checks and balances in place, and at the same time the court wants to recover the missing money from the vault from the royal family,” Rajeev said.
She added that using a temple’s wealth “strictly for the welfare of the people would be the ideal thing.”
However, Manu S. Pillai, author of the award-winning book, “The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore,” said such a proposal would be “alarming.”
“The value of the temple’s treasure is not monetary alone but also historical. What is reasonable, on the other hand, is placing some of it in a museum run by the temple authorities,” Pillai, who has written extensively on the royal family of Travancore, which has been managing the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, told Arab News.
Most of the wealth acquired by the temples are from donations by individual devotees. Experts say this is due to a desire “to wash their sins,” which prompts a majority to indulge in such extravagant donations.
“It’s a paradox that India is a land of many homeless and hungry people and gods are rich,” Rajeev said.
“Each temple in India represents a myth or ritual, or some miracle — and people believe them blindly. People donate money as a votive; business tycoons donate a minuscule amount from the black money they amass thinking that it would wash away their sins,” she added.
Pillai agrees and adds that donating to temples also offers “social and cultural validation” to many.
“Temples could be used to legitimize political changes, to create patronage networks, to control economic channels. While an ordinary devotee may pay small amounts willingly out of love for the deity and a desire to contribute to the institution’s upkeep, there are public figures for whom large donations bring social prestige. So it is a mix of several things,” he said.