One chart

I was having a bit of an exchange yesterday with a couple of people about the execrable and inadequate President of the United States, and started looking at something that became this chart (of confirmed Covid-19 deaths per million population).

confirmed deaths per million

Which countries?  Basically, the advanced countries (most OECD members plus Singapore and Taiwan).

The exchange yesterday started with noting simply that for all Trump’s manifest inadequacies the US death rate at present is lower than those in most western European countries.   To the extent these data are a roughly representative picture of reality, presumably that largely reflects a decentralised system in which many/most of the relevant powers and responsibilities rest with states, cities and counties.

But what really interested me as I extended the number of countries on the chart is the extraordinary range of Covid death experiences to this point –  and we are surely only in the latter stage of Round 1 of this – across advanced economies.  In some cases, there are stark differences apparent even between countries that share a common border (notably Austria and Slovakia).   And big differences across countries that were all part of the free-mobility Schengen zone.

I’m not using this post to champion any particular view or any particular country’s experience.  For a start, we know that Covid death counts are being done differently in different countries –  Belgium errs on the side of inclusiveness, relative to most other European countries – and none of the numbers (at least for severely affected countries) will be even remotely sound until there are some consistent excess mortality calculations done (deaths at this time of year this year compared with those in more normal years), presumably with some adjustments for other changes in mortality (fewer road deaths, perhaps more from other delayed treatments).

As people start to dig into the cross-country differences (even to this point) presumably there will a range of relevant factors including:

  •  differences in the stage of the virus (when a country first experienced Covid infections –  even exponential processes take time to become very visible, and it was only three months yesterday since even the Wuhan lockdown),
  •  luck,
  •  the extent of testing, tracing and isolating (and consistency of approach/enforcement),
  •  the nature and extent of lockdown policies (and in some countries there will be notably useful differences in those policies in different regions within countries)

And, of course, there are interactions among those –  lockdowns in particular can be endogenous responses to weaknesses in other areas (as, say, champions of the Taiwan experience might suggest).

And with the literature on the Great Depression still active and that on the 1918 flu pandemic resurgent over the last couple of decades, presumably we can expect scholarly debate to rage for decades, perhaps well beyond our lifetimes.

For me, and perhaps mainly because I’ve long been intrigued by their economic performance, I’m interested to learn more about why –  for now at least, and on these numbers –  the former Communist central and eastern European countries are so far down this chart.  The worst of them –  Slovenia –  currently has a death rate less than a quarter of that of, say, Switzerland (and the geographic distance between the two countries is pretty small).  Most/all of them were in the Schengen area right along with (most of) the dreadfully bad performers of western Europe.

No answers, just questions.   And, of course, relief that New Zealand is in that diverse group in the bottom quarter of the chart.