The Corner

Science & Tech

Why the U.S. Ranks So Poorly in Coronavirus Deaths Per Million

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)

One of the more cringe-inducing exchanges in President Trump’s interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan is when Swan says he’s examining the rate of U.S. deaths as a percentage of the population, as opposed to the death rate among the infected. “You can’t do that!” Trump responds.

The United States has a pretty bad death rate per million people compared to most other countries. We rank tenth in the world in deaths per million people, at 480. (All figures from Worldometers.) Tiny counties such as San Marino and Andorra can jump to the top because of low populations. The U.S. ranks behind Belgium, the U.K., Spain, Peru, Italy, Sweden, and Chile.

However, there are some pretty important non-Trump reasons for this grim statistic:

  1. It is certain that some other countries aren’t being accurately measured. Many other high-population countries are either third-world, authoritarian, or both, and thus don’t have terribly reliable numbers. Other countries are getting hammered as well, but shoddy infrastructure and record-keeping, particularly in impoverished areas, mean we don’t really know how many have died or what the true death rate is in China, Russia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.
  2. Other countries started this pandemic with certain advantages: populations that have more trust in their leadership, more experience with SARS and other disease outbreaks so they don’t blow these things off, more habitual mask-wearing, etc.
  3. The United States is being hit with the hyper-contagious version from Europe, while most of Asia got the less-contagious original strain from China — although that could change.
  4. Trump was far from the only U.S. elected official who downplayed the threat of the virus, and the U.S. death toll was heavily shaped by state decisions that sent infected recovering patients back into nursing homes.

A lot of Trump critics and foes seem to operate on the principle that acknowledging any factor outside of Trump — China, the WHO, the decisions of governors or mayors, etc. — amounts to letting Trump off the hook for his decisions and statements.

President Trump could have made a decent argument citing any of those points, but that would require him to pay attention to his briefings. Instead, he’s left flustered, waving his sheets of paper at Swan insisting that the U.S. numbers are good, because his staff tells him so.

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