The US’s Covid-19 epidemic is bad. But just how bad is it?
Over at the New York Times, columnist David Leonhardt compared the US’s coronavirus death toll to that of the rest of the world. He noted the US accounts for about 4 percent of the world’s population but 22 percent of its confirmed Covid-19 deaths. So how many lives would be saved if those numbers were even? Leonhardt calculated: “about 145,000.”
Columnist Ross Douthat took issue with that approach. Arguing that “the patterns for Covid-19 fatalities often look more region-specific than country-specific,” he compared the US to a slew of countries in the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Latin America and parts of Europe. By that toll, the US doesn’t seem to do so badly, with a death rate close to that of Brazil, France, Mexico, and the United Kingdom.
But Douthat’s list, despite calling for a regional comparison, doesn’t include Canada, arguably the country most similar to the US in the Western Hemisphere and one that’s done a much better job fighting the coronavirus than the US.
So that got me wondering: What would a more comprehensive comparison look like? What would the US death toll be like if the country had the same rate of Covid-19 deaths as some other wealthy nations, accounting for population differences?
The results, based on Our World in Data, are staggering:
- If the US had the same death rate as the European Union overall, nearly 84,000 Americans wouldn’t have died from Covid-19 (out of the nearly 190,000 who have died so far).
- If the US had the same death rate as Canada, nearly 109,000 Americans wouldn’t have died from Covid-19.
- If the US had the same death rate as Germany, more than 152,000 Americans wouldn’t have died from Covid-19.
- If the US had the same death rate as Australia, more than 179,000 Americans wouldn’t have died from Covid-19.
- If the US had the same death rate as Japan, more than 185,000 Americans wouldn’t have died from Covid-19.
The US doesn’t do worse than every other developed nation. San Marino, Belgium, Spain, the UK, Italy, and Sweden all report worse death rates. But the US has been catching up to the latter four recently, and they comprise only a handful of the three dozen developed nations in the world.
The comparisons here aren’t perfect. There are other factors, like higher rates of preexisting medical conditions, that would have likely led the US to suffer more Covid-19 deaths, all else held equal. But that wouldn’t explain why the US has reported multiple times the cases — more than four times the EU, more than five times Canada, and more than 18 times Australia — and, as the list above demonstrates, multiple times the deaths.
In his op-ed, Douthat argues that his comparisons suggest Donald Trump is a merely mediocre president. Taking the steps to stop Covid-19, he wrote, “would have probably required presidential greatness, not merely replacement-level competence. We can say without a doubt that Trump whiffed when this call for greatness came. But distinguishing between Trump’s incompetence and what an average president might have managed is harder, so long as so many peer-country death tolls look like ours.”
But peer-country death tolls really don’t look like ours. The US is doing about seven times worse than the median developed country, ranking in the bottom 20 percent for Covid-19 deaths among wealthy nations. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost as a result.
And a lot of this is on Trump. As cases climbed in the US, the president abdicated problems with testing to local, state, and private actors; pushed states to reopen way too early to supposedly “LIBERATE” their economies; spoke negatively about masks while refusing to wear one himself; and backed unproven and even dangerous approaches to treating Covid-19, including injecting bleach. Each of these failures compounded and led to the current US death toll — and local and state governments, as hard as some tried, simply don’t have the resources to fight a pandemic on their own.
Compare that to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. These are leaders all over the political spectrum, but they took the pandemic seriously — building up testing, advocating for mask-wearing, encouraging social distancing, or all of the above. And their countries are much better off.
There’s still time for things to go a different way. Maybe the US will somehow get its act together, avoiding another wave of infections and deaths. Maybe other developed countries will see massive second waves similar to America’s. (Spain and France, after relaxing social distancing and going easy on masking, already are.)
But for now, the US has suffered a much worse Covid-19 outbreak and death toll than all but a handful of its developed peers. It’s a predictable, preventable catastrophe.
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