The US has a little more than 4% of the world population. Yet, throughout the end of April and through mid-May, the US claimed to have about a third of the reported coronavirus cases and a quarter to a third of reported death worldwide. What accounts for these amazing numbers?
By any measure, the US has a much better healthcare system than the Philippines (PI). The country has about a third of the US population, at 106.7 million. Just to pick a date, on May 12, 2020 the PI reported 11,086 cases and 726 deaths, according to Worldometer. This represents 213 cases per million residents, and 7 per million deaths. The US reported 4,187 cases per million, and 247 deaths per million, 20 and 30 times higher than the PI. The PI also had variable lockdowns, as did the US, with Manila reportedly facing the strictest measures, similar to some areas in the US.
One obvious difference in numbers is the level of testing. The US surely carried out testing more assiduously than did the PI. The same site claimed the US carried out 29 thousand tests per million, with only 1,600 per million in the PI. But with lower deaths, a country needs fewer tests.
Without question, the media, including non-American media, focused on the US. And perhaps the US was quicker to ascribe deaths to coronavirus. Who knows what the PI policy was for ascribing deaths. The weather in the PI, too, was much better— that is, hotter and sunnier—than in the areas of the US with the largest deaths, New York, Chicago, and Detroit metropolitan areas, which all had lousy weather. A late spring, with cool temperatures and a lot of rain.
Taiwan is a country of 24 million people and had, on the same date, 440 cases and 7 deaths, or 0.3 per million. With no lockdowns and relatively good weather. We heard much about Sweden, which only took modest measures. Sweden has less than half the population of Taiwan. Sweden had 26,670 reported cases, and 3,256 reported deaths, or 2,641 and 322 per million, respectively. It had worse weather.
Belgium has about as many people as Sweden, 11.5 million, though more spread out. They had 53,449 reported cases and 8,707 reported deaths, or 4,612 and 751 per million respectively, the worst of all countries. Three times worse than the US. The Belgian and US lockdown were similar, with the Belgian being slightly stricter, and easier to monitor and control given the country’s size.
There were 12 countries (with at least a million people) that had, on May 12, reported death rates greater than 100 per million. These were, from worst to best, Belgium, Spain, Italy, UK, France, Sweden, Netherlands, Ireland, USA, Switzerland, Canada, Portugal. Each country besides Sweden (which had some impositions) had lockdowns, in varying severity.
There were 31 countries (of at least one million) with reported death rates from 11 to 99 per million. These included, from worst to best, Denmark (92), Germany (91), Iran (80), Norway (41), Israel (30), Mexico (28), Russia (14), and Greece (14). Lockdowns varied widely, as we’ll see.
There were 51 countries (of at least one million) with reported death rates from 1 to 10 per million. These included Japan (with modest measures), South Korea (with more stringent measures), both at 5 per million, Singapore, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Georgia, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Paraguay, India, China, and a host of African countries.
Finally, there were 30 countries (also at least one million) with reported deaths under 1 per million. These included Thailand, Taiwan, Jordan, Hong Kong, Botswana, Syria, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and so on.
Let’s look at in pictures. I first went through every country and classified whether that country had a government-imposed lockdown of at least half its population, for any time in 2020. The sources were saved, so you can check for yourself. I welcome correction and amplifications! Download the data here. Or ignore it altogether. The spread in death rates is more then sufficient proof against lockdowns, as we’ll see.
This is a histogram of the deaths per million population for those countries with at least a population of one million, broken down by lockdowns and no lockdowns. Iceland, population about a third of a million, did not have a lockdown, thus does not appear. They had a death rate of 29 per million.
The scale is by log base 10, a necessity because of the enormous variability in death rates. Countries which did not have lockdowns are in green. If anything, these are are clustered at the lower end of death rates, but the evidence is far from conclusive.
Another way to look at it, because of the potential for population density to play a role, is a plot of the death rate per million by the population, for countries with at least one million.
The two top population points are, of course, China and India. The highest death rates were discussed above. Again, death rates were more than highly variable: they were all over the place! Vietnam, which reported 0 deaths, does not appear.
Lockdowns ranged from severe, as in China’s Wuhan, to practically non-existent or highly localized, as in Botswana, where major cities saw greater control. If lockdowns worked as advertised, then we would not expect to see such enormous variability in the reported death rates. Belgium, again, had 751 per million, and Ethiopia, population 109.2 million, had the lowest reported non-zero death rate of 0.04 per million. This is a difference of 19 thousand times!
Ethiopia did declare a state of emergency, but had no lockdown. They also had from the US a “$37m package which encompassed case management, infection prevention and control, laboratory strengthening, public health screening, and communications and media campaigns, among others.”
Vietnam, population 95.5 million, which had a lockdown (they reported 18,000 businesses were forced to close), reported 0 deaths.
Sweden did better than the UK, and there couldn’t have been a greater difference in strategies. In the US, South Dakota, which had no lockdown, did 7 times better than Chicago (or all Illinois), which did.
Brazil did not have a country-wide lockdown, but a handful of cities threatened, and some carried out local measures. Same kind of thing in the US, with of course harsh mandatory measures in more enlightened cities, to nothing in all in some flyover cities. Japan did not have a lockdown and did fine, relatively speaking. It’s never mentioned in the press, though. Wonder why? Georgia (the country) appeared only to lockdown Tblisi.
Some countries locked down only a few major cities or ports, others cut off foreign travel, and either left their citizens alone or only issued warnings. Some lockdowns were esoecially harsh, with food shortages happening fast, like in Paraguay. Lithuania required people to wear coronavirus bracelets to indicate their health status. Foreign workers in Qatar concentrated on their lockdowns in camps. Albania scanned the grounds using drones to find lockdown scofflaws. Even nomads in Western Sahara were ordered to stay in their tents!
There is a sort of trend of lower death rates in hotter countries, or in areas of larger countries with better weather, like the US. Population density also played a part. It easier to spread any bug in tightly packed quarters, than when people are spread far apart. People mattered, of course. Australia and New Zealand, both locked down, and both had 4 per million death rates, but then it was summer in both places at the start of the pandemic, and the people are largely similar.
Obviously, many, many other things varied between countries. Age and healthy of citizens. Old and decrepit in Europe? Younger and more robust in Africa? Compliance of people was of every possible status. In some countries, there was not as much oversight on lockdowns, and even in those without lockdowns some measures were taken, as in Taiwan. In Guinea police fired on lockdown protesters. In Somalia police fired and hit their targets, killing lockdown protesters. In Michigan no shots were fired, but the politicians began sweating.
Reporting also varied widely, and wildly. The West went with hour-by-hour breathless updates for every number. The press trumpeted each new increase, besides themselves with glee for an opportunity to feel important. We hardly heard from, or about, African countries.
And then the medical systems are also vastly different among all these countries. Some numbers seemed more reliable than others. Tajikistan only a few deaths (2 per million), which some said was a lie. Who knows? Everybody is sure China lied. Did Japan? Did Belarus? Over-counting and excessive nervousness caused uncertainty in the numbers in the West. Incapacity, or lack of interest or resources, or even government intervention, as in China, muddied the numbers elsewhere.
In the end, it does not come down to country- or even city-level statistics. It comes down to people. Each individual catches the bug or not, lives or dies. Not because of their country, but because of themselves, their health, their circumstances. Any given individual might have benefited from self-quarantine and loss of job. Just as any given individual might have come to a bad end from a lockdown. The only possible way to know is to measure each case. Which can never happen.
What should we conclude? Strike that. What can we conclude. Only one thing: we cannot conclude that lockdowns worked.
The only evidence for lockdowns is the desire that lockdowns worked. That, and the embarrassment (and worse) in admitting to error. What politician anywhere will cop to ruining their economy and the lives of millions of their citizens? Who can say “Ah, it was only a few trillion”? This will not happen. It just won’t. All politicians will and much go on repeating that their lockdowns “saved lives”.
They have to. It’s suicide not to. They are all talking out their nether regions. What’s the answer, the realpolitik? Let those leaders say “My plan worked” get away with it. And dispose of those who revealed themselves a petty martinets, dictators in training, and assholes. You can read into “dispose” whatever you like. Whatever happens to politicians should happen harder and longer to journalists. In any case, a global purge of braggarts will not happen.
This virus, as viruses will, found its way to all corners of the world, and it affected different areas differently. End of story.
There is a distinct tendency, at least in the Western media, to ascribe merit and blame for every event to people. What egos we all have!
In the US it went like this. The virus was caused or exacerbated by the political party I disfavor. If persons in the party I favored were listened to, this would not have been as big a crisis. The virus spread so rapidly because of the actions of the party I disfavor. The party I favor helped stem the tide and saved lives. The crisis would have ended sooner, and more lives would have been saved, if the people in the party I hate were ignored. Science saved us!
Nature gets no credit. Not for the creation of the virus, not for its highly variable spread, not for its highly variable infection rate, and certainly not for its hugely variable deaths caused. All those things were believed to be the responsibility of people. Nature has no real power, we think. It can be controlled to any degree of precision desired, if only we can muster sufficient political will and suppress our enemies.
We can credit, as we’ve already seen, the lockdowns for causing any number of difficulties, such as massive job loss, grief, disharmony, terror, and even death. It cause hubris to rise to the bursting point.
But the pandemic numbers suggest that this was yet another in an endless string of viruses that came, did its damage, and is fading into the background. It was not nearly as deadly as others, not even in the last 100 years, and it was worse than some.
Chances are we can do little to prevent pandemics like this. It’s the expectation that we can that inspired the panic. If we don’t remove that expectation, we’re going to have to go through this again.
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