Revisiting the Numbers: The COVID-19 Death Toll

Respiratory therapist Casey White prepares to attend to a patient suffering from the coronavirus in the ICU at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Chula Vista, Calif., May 12, 2020. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
The death rate in the U.S. still is high, and South and Central America are suffering now.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T wo months ago, I looked at the per capita COVID-19 death rates around America and the globe, and what we might learn from them. Let’s revisit what has happened between May 21 and July 20. You may be surprised by what the data show.

While there are no foolproof forms of data due to a variety of issues with standards for collecting and classifying information, deaths are the ultimate bottom line and less susceptible to the vagaries of testing regimes. Preventing deaths is the paramount goal of our health-care system. I’m using the same source here, the COVID-19 Dashboard from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Note that some of the reported deaths here may be people who died before May 21 but were only recorded later.

Region by Region

We start at the regional level. Here is what the world’s regions looked like in late May:

Despite the Chinese origin of the virus, and assuming the (questionable) accuracy of Chinese reporting, the pandemic as of late May had hit the Western nations of the Northern Hemisphere — the U.S., Europe, and Canada — far harder than the rest of the globe, while much of Africa and East and South Asia had barely been touched. Here is what things look like by now:

Isolating the shift, here is the per capita death toll just since May 21:

What looked like a north/south split two months ago is now a much more pronounced east/west split, with the Western Hemisphere in far worse shape than the Old World. Central and South America now lead the world and have almost caught up with Europe overall. Meanwhile, deaths from the virus have virtually disappeared from East Asia and the Pacific. If you believe China’s official numbers, it has lost just six people out of 1.3 billion in the past two months.

The Worst of It Now

As with my prior column, I’ll break out U.S. states separately, as well as the U.S. as a whole in comparison with foreign nations. What have been the hardest-hit jurisdictions since May 21?

Lots of American states are still doing worse by this metric than any foreign country as a whole, with the worst still concentrated in New Jersey and New England, but the death toll has climbed in states from other regions such as Arizona and Mississippi. At a national level, the South American countries have taken the brunt of deaths over the past two months, Chile leading the list. The many European countries atop this list in the spring have mostly gotten better.

Notably, the United States as a whole is lower on the list for the past two months than it had been previously. With New York in better shape, the previously large divergence between the national rate and the “outside the Tri-State area” rate had closed considerably. Florida, which has widely been described in the media as the global epicenter of the pandemic today, has seen fewer deaths in the past two months than 19 other states, and a third as many per capita as Rhode Island. Here’s the remainder of jurisdictions above the global average over this period:

We continue to see that the virus more commonly targets advanced economies, undoubtedly for reasons of travel, mass transit, urbanization, and air conditioning, as well as better data collection. That said, the pattern is less pronounced than in the first wave. I noted in my prior column that Texas was mostly in line with neighboring Mexico, but unlike Arizona, it has thus far avoided the sharp upward spike underway in its southern neighbor.

American States

Given how much attention has been focused on the varying conditions in the states, let’s look at the 23 largest states, those with 5 million or more people, compared with the nation’s neighbors. Here are the numbers to date:

Now, just since May 21:

New Jersey’s first-worst position stands out in either period — more people have died of COVID-19 in New Jersey since May 21 than in Florida during the entire pandemic — while the much-anticipated surge in the southern part of the country has been noticeable but far less dramatic than predicted. Of the large states above the national average, only Arizona and Maryland are below the Mason-Dixon line.

A Tale of Two Regions

The dramatic contrast between Europe and Latin America is notable enough to be worth highlighting. Here are the pre- and post-May 21 figures for each region. Here are the hardest-hit areas of Europe through late May:

Here’s Europe now:

Sweden’s unique approach may well end up an economic success story, but the continuing death toll is far worse than that of its neighbors. The U.K. has also continued to have serious problems, but most of the continent is out of the woods, at least for now. Places such as San Marino, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria have come through the worst.

Then, look at Central and South America in the same time period:

Some of the regional divergences make sense (the island nations, here and in most places, are doing comparatively well thanks to easily controlled borders), and it is possible that Venezuela’s numbers are low for the same reasons as some places in Africa that just lack the medical and government infrastructure to collect and report data. But it seems especially striking that Uruguay and Paraguay have thus far avoided the awful spike hitting their larger neighbors on all sides. The other region that shows a serious split is in Central Asia:

A few of the states of the Caucasus have had it especially bad of late, while their neighbors have been barely scratched. Israel has done comparatively well, despite some recent spikes in infection rates. The Gulf states are likely facing some of the same “second winter” seasonal issues as the southern United States, i.e., the season of the year when people are heavily dependent upon air conditioning. Large indoor air-conditioned spaces are notably less common in Europe, which is one reason why Europe is more apt to lose large numbers of people to death from heat waves — a far less common cause of death here in the U.S.

The ultimate takeaways from the data are, of course, much debatable. One thing that seems clear is that we should not let spikes in infection rates distract us from the great progress that has been made in reducing mortality rates across the U.S. — a tribute to the great American health-care system. Americans are, however, still facing a greater ongoing threat than many other parts of the world, and that will continue to haunt our debates over reopening.

Most Popular

U.S.

New York City’s Downward Spiral

New York City must be one of the few places on earth where chaos nostalgia is widespread. Many were the laments, in the Giuliani-Bloomberg era, that the city was “too sanitized,” “too gentrified,” “too boring,” “anodyne,” “suburban.” Often you’d hear people saying, or declaiming, that their ... Read More
U.S.

New York City’s Downward Spiral

New York City must be one of the few places on earth where chaos nostalgia is widespread. Many were the laments, in the Giuliani-Bloomberg era, that the city was “too sanitized,” “too gentrified,” “too boring,” “anodyne,” “suburban.” Often you’d hear people saying, or declaiming, that their ... Read More
Elections

Wait, Joe Biden Picked That Kamala Harris?

Kamala Harris? Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris? Out of all of Biden's options, he chose the rival whose presidential campaign is best remembered for her attack on him, contending he opposed busing? The rival who said the way he described his relationship with old segregationists was “hurtful”! The woman ... Read More
Elections

Wait, Joe Biden Picked That Kamala Harris?

Kamala Harris? Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris? Out of all of Biden's options, he chose the rival whose presidential campaign is best remembered for her attack on him, contending he opposed busing? The rival who said the way he described his relationship with old segregationists was “hurtful”! The woman ... Read More
Elections

The Coming Color Revolution

Listen, you’re reading this on the Internet, so I assume you can figure out how to reach my bosses and the human-resources people, maybe even the people I love. We all know you can figure out how to poison my dog. And so, with that in mind, I want to assure the readers that, officially, I believe the polls. And ... Read More
Elections

The Coming Color Revolution

Listen, you’re reading this on the Internet, so I assume you can figure out how to reach my bosses and the human-resources people, maybe even the people I love. We all know you can figure out how to poison my dog. And so, with that in mind, I want to assure the readers that, officially, I believe the polls. And ... Read More