America, Trump, and the health effects of the coronavirus

One of Joe Biden’s key campaign talking points was that the U.S., under President Trump, has fared much worse than the rest of the world when it comes to the health effects of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. It was a point Biden and Kamala Harris were able to make early in each debate, thanks to the way the moderators decided to sequence the debate topics.

But the talking point is false. The U.S. has fared about the same, healthwise, in the pandemic as the nations it makes the most sense to compare us to — European countries with relatively large populations and big cities, whose reporting can be trusted and that have substantial contacts with China.

In the U.S., deaths per capita from the virus now stand at 763 (per one million people). That number is considerably lower than Spain’s (891). It’s comparable to the UK’s (787) and Italy’s (760). France has fared somewhat better so far (690). However, with almost as many people dying from the virus per day lately as in the U.S. (with its vastly greater population), there’s a good chance that France will soon reach or surpass the level of U.S. deaths per capita.

Among nations that it’s reasonable to compare the U.S. to, only Germany (157 deaths per one million) can boast about its performance. (Deaths from the virus are now rising alarmingly in Germany, but it’s hard to imagine the German per capita death count ever approaching ours.) Germany is an outlier, to say the least.

What I think distinguishes the U.S. from the rest of the world when it comes to the coronavirus is the development of vaccines here. Pfizer and Moderna, the two pharma companies that have developed seemingly effective vaccines so far, are American firms. They succeeded in their efforts thanks in part to large grants from the U.S. government pursuant to Trump’s Operation Warp Speed.

If historians are even remotely fair in judging Trump’s response to the pandemic, he will get some credit for the rapid, unprecedented development of these vaccines (assuming they are, in fact, effective). If historians are remotely fair to Trump, the shortcomings in his response — excluding those inherent in a situation as novel as this one is — will be viewed primarily as falling in the realm of public relations.

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