Per Capita Death Rates In One Chart

Earlier today, I posted several charts showing coronavirus fatalities in various countries in several formats. Many think that per capita mortality rates are the most relevant metric; our friend Brian Sullivan, who runs a highly sophisticated biomedical company, emailed us today with these comments:

Another worthwhile analysis would consider the common sense observation that the US, South Korea, and Europe had their first cases at roughly the same time. Therefore, I think it is informative to compare the per capita number of cases and deaths in Europe and South Korea to those in the US. I created the table below to calculate the per capita case and death rate in each country as of March 17th as reported by the Worldometers website.

I converted Brian’s table, as it relates to mortality, into a simple bar chart that shows deaths per million of population; click to enlarge:

The data suggest that the U.S. is, so far, doing extraordinarily well (but, perhaps, at too high a cost, which is a subject for another post). Brian comments:

I compared the Wuhan virus death rate as a percentage of the population in Western Europe and South Korea to the US death rate. I also compared the death (and case rates) excluding Italy. The number of Western European deaths per million of population is 29x higher than the US’s and 9x higher if Italy’s data is excluded from those calculations.

As you would expect with the higher testing in S Korea, the case rate is much higher (9x) in SK than in the US. Interestingly, the SK death rate is 5x higher than the US’s.

I think this information is relevant because there is almost no reporting that uses comparative analysis weighted for population. The data and analysis are real. The question is what conclusions you draw from them. I think the data provide some confirmation that the US’s early decision to ban travel from China and broad dissemination of hygiene and social distancing guidelines has had a positive effect. It may also reflect other factors independent of mitigation efforts, such as our lower population density, lower smoking rates, and lower proportion of multiple generations of families living together.

Population density: The U.S. is a vast, relatively underpopulated country. Maybe it just takes longer for the virus to percolate through our population and for our per capita mortality rates to catch up.

Multiple generations of families living together: This is an interesting point that I haven’t seen raised anywhere else. In countries like Italy, younger family members who catch the coronavirus but aren’t particularly sick bring it home, where it may be fatal to a grandparent. The relevance of age is obvious: one quarter of all U.S. Wuhan virus deaths, to date, come from a single nursing home in Washington.

The number of deaths caused by the virus, not how many get diagnosed with it, is the ultimate metric to track as we seek to mitigate its spread. The fact that, so far, the US has experienced a significantly lower per capita number of deaths from the virus than South Korea and European countries is interesting, at least to me. I don’t know what it portends for the future. An optimist may conclude that the steps taken to date combined with characteristics unique to America may make us less vulnerable than other countries.

Fingers crossed.

Finally, on a political note: the Democrats had better be careful about trying to blame President Trump for whatever damage the Wuhan virus ultimately does in the U.S. So far, if that is the issue, our performance shapes up extraordinarily well. Criticisms of our governments’ performance will need to be more subtle: In my opinion, we have gone overboard in constraining normal economic and social activity, to the great detriment of many millions of Americans. But that is largely a state and local issue, and not one that the Democrats are likely to raise.

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