As of Friday morning, there were 64 confirmed COVID-19 coronavirus cases in Malta, two recovered, meaning there are 62 ‘active cases’.

Some are saying this is a very small number when compared to the situation in other countries, others are countering the argument by stating that we are so small that such a number is worrying.

The truth is that we have to approach this problem by comparing active cases in each country on a ‘per capita’ basis, otherwise all comparisons will be incorrect.

For example, most people think that China has the worst COVID-19 situation at the moment. In reality, data shows that the infection is now well contained and getting under control. 

We can deduce this when considering that in total 80,815 people were infected in this country originally and now only (relatively speaking) 7,263 are active cases.

Taking into account that China has a massive population of nearly 1.4 billion people, this means that only around 5.03 infections per million are active at the moment in this country. 

Table A: Search queries on the coronavirus during a 24-hour period between March 12 and 13.Table A: Search queries on the coronavirus during a 24-hour period between March 12 and 13.

We can use live data to apply the same reasoning to a number of countries. At the moment,  the situation in San Marino, Ireland, Iceland and Italy is really dramatic, with well over 400 infections per million of the population.

Malta’s situation is neither as critical as these countries nor is it completely under control. The data shows Malta is around slightly above the average point (mean) which stands at 101.64 active cases per million.

The latest local data shows we have 62 active cases, which means we get an average rate of 140.37 infections per million, which is lower than most developed EU countries such as Germany, France and Belgium but worse than other countries such as Greece and Cyprus, which are showing better resilience than most.

Surprisingly, the situation in some massive countries such as Russia and Turkey leaves us perplexed as to the veracity of the data being reported. These countries have a very low rate of active cases at the moment even though their travel and trade data would suggest otherwise.

The statistics show that the situation in Malta is thus not overwhelming yet and we don’t need to compare our condition to our neighbours, the Italians’ alarming situation, showing that the decisions being taken are proportionate to our situation and the measures are actually helping to contain the infections.

Table B: Searches on the coronavirus since February 13. This table clearly shows a peak on February 25, when news broke out that the virus had reached Sicily.Table B: Searches on the coronavirus since February 13. This table clearly shows a peak on February 25, when news broke out that the virus had reached Sicily.

Using Google Trends to identify patterns in Malta

Google Trends is a powerful analytics tool, which shows data related to internet queries on the Google search engine.

Just as an example to show how powerful this platform is, it has been used in the past to successfully predict world events by gauging interest over time for particular search queries. It was successfully used to predict Trump’s victory months before the election, at a time when all polls were erroneously predicting a loss for him during the 2016 election.

Are the Maltese losing sleep and overstressing about the coronavirus?

Table A shows search queries during a 24-hour period between March 12 and 13. It clearly shows that interest in the coronavirus peaks at 6am and midnight. This means that the Maltese are thinking about this issue when they first wake up in the morning and just before they go to sleep. 

Table B shows search queries on the coronavirus during the past 30 days, clearly outlining an initial peak on February 25, the infamous Tuesday when news broke out that the coronavirus reached our neighbours in Sicily and all supermarket shelves were raided for toilet paper, pasta and water supplies.

Interest kept increasing daily since March 7, when the first case of coronavirus in Malta was announced.

Table C: The localities seemingly most concerned with the coronavirus.Table C: The localities seemingly most concerned with the coronavirus.

The Gozitans seem to be more concerned about the virus

Google Trends can also zoom in on the searches and show us which localities in Malta are more concerned with the virus. Table C shows that four out of the top five localities are in Gozo. This shows that Gozitans are far more concerned than the Maltese about this infectious disease. Unfortunately, Google Trends won’t tell us why they are more anxious about the COVID-19!

What do Nostradamus and Tom Hanks have in common?

The data provided by Google Trends shows that the Maltese are a curious bunch. The top related term being queried is connected to celebrity news, as the Maltese are looking for information about Tom Hanks’s coronavirus infection, are they perhaps preoccupied with his health condition?

Perhaps, most worrying, is the fact that the local population is also looking for Nostradamus-related prophecies about the virus.

Unfortunately, nothing good can come out when someone looks for what Nostradamus has in store for us. The internet is at the moment fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories and fake news related to Nostradamus and the coronavirus, so don’t believe anything you read about this subject.

Luckily, the Maltese sometimes also act sensibly and use the internet to look for information on coronavirus symptoms and local updates.

Table D shows data for the Maltese islands for searches related to this subject during the past seven days.

As a concluding remark, this also shows the extent of data being collected about us by the online search giant. The Trends tool only shares a fraction of what Google actually collects. In reality, every time you search for something and every time you look for someone online, the internet is keeping track and someone, somewhere, is storing that information.

Ian Vella is a tech enthusiast, with a particular interest in data sciences and how this can be used to better understand and help improve the world we live in.

Table D: Top coronavirus-related local searches in the past week.Table D: Top coronavirus-related local searches in the past week.

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