The media coverage of COVID-19 infections and deaths by country has been running along the bottom of our TV screens every day. But what do the bare numbers and their interpretations in media stories mean without context?
The media stories are strongly influenced by the political orientation of the particular media outlet. For example, the criticism of the US, and particularly its President, has usually shown the US as the country with the highest total number of deaths in the world. Is this criticism valid? Well, that depends upon how you look at it.
Deaths Per Million People
I look at it on a per million population basis, using the numbers from Worldometer. Leaving aside some outlier countries with tiny populations, the developed countries with reasonable statistics are ranked below.
April 23, 2020 Reported Covid-19 Deaths per Million Population
DEATHS/ M POPULATION
The US Ranks 9th, Not First
The US ranks 9th in deaths per million population. The US has the third-largest population (331 million in 2020) of any country, after China (1.44 billion) and India 1.38 billion).
The numbers of positive tests and deaths reported by China and India are currently so unrealistically low that I have excluded them from my table.
But even death statistics are imperfect, for several reasons. Some countries are slower than others in reporting deaths. Some only count deaths in hospitals. Some are more accurate than others in distinguishing between deaths where the deceased had the virus in their body versus deaths where the virus was clearly identified as the cause of death. Nevertheless, death statistics are probably the most accurate numbers we have, much more accurate than the number of confirmed cases, which are highly influenced by the level of testing.
All other things being equal, here are some general observations:
1. Island countries with isolated populations (e.g., Australia and New Zealand), have done better (fewer deaths per capita) than countries with adjacent countries.
2. Countries that conducted extensive testing and contact tracing earlier (particularly Taiwan and Iceland) have done better than countries with insufficient testing and/or tested and required social isolation only after widespread infections.
3. The higher the population density in cities, and the higher the proportion of a country’s population in such cities, the higher the death rate in such countries.
4. The greater the percentage of the population over 70 in a region of a country the higher the death rate.
5. The deaths per million as of today are likely to change somewhat over the next few weeks.
1. Taiwan and South Korea have done remarkably well by moving early and ignoring the initially optimistic reports from the World Health Organization.
2. Australia and New Zealand have done well, Spain and Italy have not.
3. Canada has done better than the US (and most European countries) because we have only one adjacent country, a low population density, we moved earlier than the US to social isolation and restriction of flights, and closing the Canada/US border.
1. Belgium ranks first in deaths per capita, 35% higher than Italy. Yet we hear almost nothing about Belgium and everything about Italy. I have not found any explanation for this.
2. Japan’s death rate is astonishingly low for a country with 126 million people, highly concentrated, suggesting some statistical anomaly. Japan’s population density is 335 people per square kilometer versus 35 for the US and 4 for Canada.
I will post more on COVID-19 as I am able to analyse available information. I am currently examining economic analyses from several economists and journalists discussing the potential scenarios of the economy as we strive find a new normal.
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