Do Americans Understand How Bad Covid in America Really Is?
America just passed a grim, shocking milestone. A quarter of a million people are now dead from Covid. And while Americans — at least the sane ones — have some inkling that this is a tragedy, they don’t quite seem to grasp just what a catastrophe it really is. The unthinkable horror of it. How badly their country has failed at this challenge. That’s because they don’t know what it means to really be successful at handling Covid — in hard, concrete, factual terms.
How could they? Their pundits and intellectuals don’t really explain — they lament, perhaps, but that’s about all. They don’t provide context, hard facts and figures, that really place America’s Covid catatrasophe in perspective, so that Americans can truly understand how shocking it is., versus what “success in fighting Covid” truly means.
So let me try.
One way to think about how bad Covid in America is that it has the world’s worst outcomes. But you know that — and it doesn’t really tell you that much.
Let’s try again.
Another way to think about it is that 9 out of the world’s top 10 worst Covid hotspots are American states. 9 out of 10 of them are red states. That gives you a little bit more info — but again, not nearly enough.
See that chart above? Those are the facts and figures that every American should know right about now. Every single one.
What does it mean? Why do I say that?
We’re going to do a little bit of math — don’t worry, it’s just grade school math — together. By way of asking what economists call a “counterfactual.” What if this was that? What if this had happened there? What if this country were that country? How would outcomes have differed? Counterfactuals gives us the broadest and deepest perspective. We see things through a much wider lens, and suddenly, we have the context we’re missing.
The counterfactual I’m going to use is this question: What if America had been one of the world’s most successful Covid countries? Instead of the least successful?
I’m going to choose five countries. South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Singapore. They’re the world’s most successful societies at fighting Covid. I’ve chosen them precisely because a) we can trust their data, more or less b) they didn’t get lucky — Covid reached their shores early, and c) they had to fight it, hard. Their outcomes, in other words, aren’t the results of chance — but of decisions and choices.
To compare, we’re simply going to do a little bit of extrapolation. At that country’s population level, but with America’s death rate, how many Covid deaths would there be — compared to how many there actually are? In other words, if these countries had acted like America — how many people would have died?
And I’m also going to ask and answer the opposite question. If America had acted like these countries, how many fewer deaths would there have been?
This, by the way, is the context that Americans need, but don’t have. They know things are bad — but they have no idea, really, just how bad — because nobody is explaining it to them. So prepare to be shocked, because I’d bet your jaw is about to drop.
Taiwan’s numbers are the most dramatic. It has just 7 — seven — Covid deaths, out of a population of about 24 million. If Taiwan had acted like America, it would have had 18,000 deaths. 7 vs 18,000. That’s more than 2000 times as many deaths. If America, on the other hand, had acted like Taiwan, it would have had just 100 Covid deaths.
Do you see how dramatic the numbers are? They’re so head-spinning that even I did a double take when I made these calculations.
Shocked? You should be. So much so that for many of you, your minds are going to revolt, go into denial, furiously try to find rationalisations to explain all this away. You might be about to raise all kinds of objections, because you think my argument’s unfair. You would be wrong. Taiwan is a much poorer country than America. It has far, far less in the way of resources. Sure, it’s an island — but so what? Plenty of islands did very, very badly with Covid — like Britain, for example. Instead of looking for holes in my argument — there aren’t any, I’m just doing simple math that compares global outcomes — stop trying to rationalise reality away. It’s not me that’s trying to trick you, I’m trying to inform and educate you — it’s that America’s intellectuals and politicians have really failed, and failed badly, to arm you with basic facts and figures about how badly America’s Covid failure really is, why it stuns the rest of the world. How bad is America’s Covid failure? That bad.
Let’s keep going.
You might think Taiwan’s a special case — but it’s not.
Vietnam’s had 35 deaths, from a population of about 96 million. If it had acted like America, it would have had 73,000 deaths. 35 — versus 73,000. If America had acted like Vietnam, on the other hand, it would have had just 120 deaths.
That’s 2000 times less.
Let me translate the point of all that. The most successful countries in the world have Covid death rates thousands of times lower than America. That is how bad America’s failure is. It isn’t a minor slip-up, or some kind of marginal situation. It is dramatic, epic, catastrophic, and surreal, the gulf is so vast. And yes, that applies to much of the West as a whole, too.
(If you’re one of those Americans, the arrogant kind, who says, “we can’t trust their numbers!!” by all means, go ahead and triple them. Quintuple them, if you like. It just means that America would have had around 500 deaths at Singaporean or Vietnamese levels, not 100 — instead of 250,000 it does have, and counting.)
Vietnam and Taiwan aren’t flukes and they’re not outliers. They’re not cooking the books and they’re not hiding data. The problems are not statistical. They’re examples of nations that really did get Covid right.
And I highlight them to show just what it means to “be successful dealing with Covid.” Americans appear to have little idea about what that actually means. They should educate themselves. Being successful at Covid isn’t impossible, and it doesn’t mean say, having 200,000 deaths instead of 250,000 deaths. It means having deaths in the hundreds, at America’s population level.
Americans are badly ill-informed about this simple fact, that success at dealing with Covid is a) possible b) real) and means something far, far more dramatic than they probably think. It’s not half as many deaths. It’s 100s or 1000s of times fewer.
Perhaps that is why Americans seem so defeated and diffident. They don’t really understand how bad the failure is. Lacking perspective about what “dealing successfully with Covid really means”, how can they hold their leaders — or each other — to account? They can’t and don’t. And so Covid just goes on wrecking their nation.
Let me keep going, with my last three examples.
South Korea has had 498 Covid deaths, from a population of about 51.6 million. If South Korea had acted like America, it would have had 40,000 deaths. That’s almost 100 times as many. If America had acted like South Korea, it would have had just 3,200 deaths.
New Zealand has just 25 Covid deaths, from a population of about 5 million. If New Zealand had acted like America, it would have had 4,000 deaths. If America had acted like New Zealand, instead of 250,000 deaths, it would have had just 1,700 deaths.
Singapore’s numbers are similar — it’s had just 28 Covid deaths, out of a population of about 5.7 million. If Singapore had acted like America, it would have had 4,300 deaths. If America had acted like Singapore, it would have had just 1,600 deaths.
In other words, if America had acted like New Zealand or Singapore, it would have had more than 100 times fewer deaths.
I highlight these latter three examples to show you the diversity of countries that have gotten Covid right. New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore. These aren’t societies that have altogether that much in common — despite what Americans might believe. So what did they get right, and America get wrong?
One thing you know — and two things you might not. All the countries on my list had strong leadership — while America had no leadership. They all, therefore, quickly developed a national strategy to fight Covid that was aimed at eradicating it, not just containing it — America still doesn’t have one at all. And three, their populations cooperated with it. In other words, what these societies share are three things that America lacks almost completely now. Decisive and swift leadership. The ability to respond to crises with swift, confident, science-based planning. And a population that can cooperate — instead of refuse to wear masks and infect a whole country at super-spreader events.
America, by January, at least, should have one of those things: leadership. If it’s lucky, by February, it might half-way have another: a national strategy, but probably not one to eradicate the virus, only to contain it. But it will probably never have the third — a population capable of cooperating. Too many Americans believe in free-dumb now — the right, for example, to spread a deadly virus, as a heroic act of freedom.
Americans need to understand all that. In order to change it. They can and should demand from a Biden administration that the national strategy be to wipe out Covid out — not just slow it. To really crunch the curve into oblivion, not just flatten it. They can and should be demanding some kind of action from Trump now, in fact.
How much worse could things get by January? Really, really bad. Even if Covid cases plateau at their new peak — around 175,000 cases a day — that’s still more than a million people per week.. At the current mortality rate of about 2.2%, that’s somewhere between 15,000 deaths per week. But that caseload is going to overwhelm hospitals — which causes mortality rates to spike. So call it 25,000 deaths per week. That’s another hundred thousand dead by Christmas.
That’s an upper limit, probably. Still, I want you to see how bad things really are.
Americans don’t quite understand how badly they have been failed on Covid. By Trump, by his administration, by all those Red State governors who made it illegal to mandate wearing masks, and by each other, too — think of all those Americans who won’t take Covid seriously…right to their death beds.
Americans don’t understand — even the good and sane ones — how badly they’ve been failed, how bad it really is, how dire the situation is. That is because nobody is explaining it to them, with hard, simple, concrete facts, that provide a little bit of global context.
When you think of those facts, they go like this. Had America acted like the world’s most successful societies, it would have had thousands of times fewer deaths. Somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand dead. Not a quarter of a million people dead.
If you ask me, every American should know that. They should memorise it and think about it and reflect on it. Because without reckoning with such facts, how can they ever demand accountability for the failures they live through? Americans don’t know what it means to be successful at handling Covid. It’s about time, though, they did.