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.



42 thoughts on “One chart

  1. I don’t even bother to look at these ‘statistics’ anymore. Garbage-in/Garbage-out. Each country reports differently, some countries don’t capture deaths at home – a big deal – some countries don’t/can’t collect data and many countries (China) just lie.

    I’m amazed how gullible people are about is BS data.

    Also, it’s now moot. The virus is everywhere and even if OECD countries manage to contain it, without a vaccine or herd immunity we either become trapped in a national bubble (Australia-NZ) or we will see constant re-infection as illegal migrants bring it back in (Europe/US).

    Pandora’s Box is open.

    Liked by 5 people

      • Lying is an issue – especially with regard to China (check out Beijing’s statistics if you want comic relief) but there are other issues. How the data is captured and defined, and whether the data can be captured at all. Some countries (Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq) simply cant capture the data even if they wanted to. Some countries don’t have the resources to (DRC, Egypt) and then there’s the fibbers (North Korea, China).

        Taiwan seems to me to be the most interesting case. They seem to have done an excellent job. Of course, they know and understand the evil of the CCP better than most and were aggressive in responding once they knew of the threat, which was early owing to their secret service.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think there’s much in the way of lying. It wouldn’t be possible any extent in the Central/Eastern European countries. But the variance in classification of deaths is certainly a factor.

        There’re some other factors that influence the prevalence of this disease and as follows its mortality:

        demographics – population density and structure
        lifestyle and cultural aspects
        quality of health care
        social capital and trust
        political approach to practical solutions

        and so on.

        Liked by 2 people

      • And air quality is almost certainly a substantial factor. Wuhan, Lombardy, Madrid and the districts of New York most affected all have ghastly air quality. For a disease which primarily affects pulmonary functions, the correlation is pretty obvious.
        I haven;t seen any stats on air quality in Belgium – it’d be very interesting to see.
        But of course there may well be different drivers in different countries/districts.


      • And answering my own question with a quick google:

        “Belgium scores especially poorly concerning the environmental issue of “Air Quality”. With a score of 60.9%, Belgium finished 162nd on the global ranking list. When focusing on its position among the other European countries, Belgium even finishes last (”

        Which may give us all a great deal of hope in NZ.


      • And lastly, on the converse side this Guardian article talks to the correlation between diesel fumes and pollution in Europe:
        At what point are the CEOs of VW et al with their diesel emission defeat devices going to be hauled back in for a homicide investigation?
        It’s one thing to reach a plea settlement based on your devices having reduced the value of owners vehicles plus some unquantified health effects to the population. It’s quite another if the focussed wrath of the population descends, based on heavily studied and materialised deaths. Will they become the scapegoats for a good chunk of pent-up consumer anger?
        If so, they truly earned their fate, but it’d be a shame if the slow-acting politicians escaped retribution off the back of a token effigy-burning.


    • The statisitics fail when comparing one country with another but can be useful to spot trends. When a country imposes a lockdown how long before it is detected in their figures. Are Sweden and the Netherlands succeeding by leaving decisions to individuals rather than imposing lockdowns? What is the cause of Singapore’s second wave of cases because maybe that will occur elsewhere?


      • What is the cause of Singapore’s second wave of cases because maybe that will occur elsewhere?

        But is it really a second wave?
        The dormitories where most of the affected live are well hidden from public view and many Singaporeans don’t even realize they exist. It is a world apart… Also the current elevation in the number of cases is not reflected in increased mortality. Perhaps the inhabitants of these places are younger and less vulnerable?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. One idea occurring to me is that the east European states mentioned are less connected to the world beyond europe, in particular Asia, than their western European counterparts. They would have been one stepped removed from the original source of infection…

    Maybe it’s the smoking? There is a theory I’ve seen suggesting smoking (via nicotine) may offer some protection against infection…

    I doubt either though – more likely down to counting techniques…


    • I am thinking that 40% proof Russian vodka may have something to do with a lower infection rate. Personally I am asthmatic and can easily catch the flu which triggers a bad bronchitis lung infection. I have found a shot of Black Label Johnny Walker Whiskey at the first signs pf a sniffle helps. Coffee each morning helps. Apple cider vinegar with grape juice to damp the smell and a sweetener in a glass of water helps.


  3. hmm, yes have to agree 100% with Peter’s comments

    Maybe Michael it’s just a discrepancy due to popularity of tourism to those countries and ethnicity of general tourism..


  4. There are of course the seasonal/climate factors as well.
    The Recent BS media storm about Trump & Disinfectant masked the research that was part of the media briefing.
    Definitely sunshine, temperature & humidity play an important role in inhibiting the spread of the disease.
    So heavily indoor population in Winter are properly better targets for the virus..
    Winter in New Zealand will be the catalyst 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      • I went to Hong Kong just after Waitangi Day. Spent several days there and met my clients. Was virtually the only person on the SQ flight from Singapore, and there may have been 10-12 guests in the Island Shangri-La. I met nearly all my clients in the hotel lounge or had meetings diverted to conference calls.

        Hong Kong has done well for several reasons. Firstly they engaged in an aggressive social distancing program. Secondly, they basically became cut off from the world, including China, very early. Thirdly, they ALL wore masks. Fourth, they all became totally OCD about hygiene. And I suspect that their government hasn’t been the best about telling the truth.

        But the differences between HKG and London were stark.

        Liked by 2 people

      • The higher UV in NZ and Australia does limit virus replication and transmission rates which equates to higher recovery aha lower death rates.


  5. Your latest Tweet:

    “And a key point is often lost sight off: when the govt issues bonds and the RB buys them then when the govt spends the proceeds the Crown is, in effect, borrowing from banks at a 0.25% interest rate.”

    And how does the RB (A Crown government entity) buying these bonds? With what?
    How does one buy Bonds from one’s self without a 3rd independent party involved….for the RB to sell onto too… perhaps other foreign central banks…


    • “With what?” The Bank simply pays by crediting the account at the RB held by the sellers’ bank – Rb bond holdings increase, and so do RB liabilities (those sett cash banks). Foreign central banks are simply not involved at all, and these are all NZD transactions. There is no technical limit to how much NZD (in this case additional sett cash balances) the RB can create. There are, of course, economic limits if inflation pressures started to build up, but for now that isn’t the threat.


      • “Foreign central banks are simply not involved at all”
        Ohh,,,so individuals, other central & other foreign banks don’t purchase Government bonds from one another?
        Pull the other one!
        How much QE was happening prior to 2008? I will tell you…virtually none…
        Seems we DO have huge global problem Michael which is getting larger by the day.

        “but for now that isn’t the threat.”

        honestly……Fiat currencies have limited life spans…. we ALL know it…because eventually the DEBT which brings them into existence gets unsustainable.


      • There will have been some foreign central bank holdings of NZ govt bonds, but mostly for the same motive as the (predominant) private holders – they tend to be relatively high yielding. But when the foreign holders sell – cen banks or otherwise – they get NZD. They will probably then sell that NZD which would, at present, helpfullly drive the exchange rate down a bit. For now it hasn’t fallen far.

        You are right that QE wasn’t a thing pre 08, but what of it? It wouldn’t be much of a thing now if central banks were willing to take policy rates negative.

        I’m not taking a view on how long fiat currency will last – altho i suspect my answer would be longer than yours – but market prices and surveys still tell us that people think downside risks to inflation are much higher than the upside risks. You may recall that when QE was first launched a decade ago there were great concerns in some quarters about inflation taking off. It didn’t. (Sure, some asset prices rose in price, but even that effect was far from universal, and the general purchasing power of people’s deposits did not sharply decline.)


  6. Inflation is brought on significantly by expanding money supply.
    Are “advanced economies” not doing that? QE? and more QE….and more……
    Is our purchasing power of our domestic currency not being weakened by doing this? Are asset prices like housing not been inflated artificially with artificially low interest rate cuts by central banks?


    • There is an important distinction between settlement cash balances and broader money supply measures. The supply of the former have certainly risen enormously, but so has demand for them (the RB is paying them interest on it all). Wider money supply measures are unlikely to change much at all – with retail interest rates still quite high there is no working mechanism for the high settlement cash balances to translate into much higher aggregate demand or higher broad money/credit.


      • Michael, an infinite money supply has serious repercussions economically.
        Are you really denying this?

        When do we all just stop pretending things are perfectly normal?

        What’s the US FED mantra now “QE too infinity”!


      • But there is not an “infinite money supply”. in the US, as just one example, it took 12 years for the M2 measure of the money supply to double from 2007, and in those 12 years inflation pretty consistently undershot the Fed target.

        There are upside risks, but I pretty much agree with this piece by the former IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard that, for now, the risks are skewed to the downside, despite the activity of central banks

        The upside risks have to be watched, but so do the downsides.

        (Unfortunately, and while I genuinely enjoy these exchanges, I have a paper I have to finish writing today so can’t comment further right now.)


      • “in those 12 years inflation pretty consistently undershot the Fed target”

        I suppose the same holds for NZ, or so I’m told. Well, this is academic. Or, in other words, it is BS. It does not apply to the world I live in. Try to buy a house! Or try entering kiwisaver today, with the share market around 4 fold what it was 10 years ago! Then tell me again there is little inflation.

        I returned to NZ in 2005. My rates (same house, no changes) have more than doubled since. So has my insurance. Electricity. Firewood. All up. Food: a packet of butter (I eat a lot of butter) was to be had for as little as $1 on special. Now $5. Salmon: double. Beef: well up. Lamb: considerably up. These are all staples for me. Well, yes, but flat-screen tvs and smart phones are cheaper. Thanks but no thanks, I own neither and don’t care. And I would smoke a little if it wasn’t for the insane prices (not inflation in this case, I realise). The little pleasures of life are not allowed.

        Long story short: life is getting difficult. Income’s up maybe 2-2.5% pa. It’s not enough.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I guess different people have different bundles of consumption. SNZ aims for a representative index. On house prices note that the increase there is almost as securely a regulatory phenomenon (land use restrictions) as the increase in cigarette taxes.

        At a purely anecdotal level I was looking for a new – couple of year old – car a month or two back and was pleasantly surprised by how little inflation there had been there in the 25 years since I first bought a fairly new car.


  7. I agree with almost all your commentary and especially the rigour and insight. However the Trump bashing does you a disservice. You risk sounding like The Economist editor where it is clear that any and all commentary on the US has to lead back to Trump criticism. Trump is not perfect of course, but considering he has large numbers of his own party, all Democrats, most of the media, all of the US civil service, Hollywood, Universities, schools, most EU government’s leaders and all international bodies against him he has done very well. The Elite class has failed the US many times and no one is held account. He is cutting through – sure he is crass and unlikable – but I would much rather have him than our dreadfull newsreader masquerading as a PM.


  8. How does QE work?
    I understand the theory
    What I don’t understand is how the liquidity gets down into the real economy, into the hands of the target audience. That is, if there is a target audience, and whether the proceeds actually get to those targets, and whether those targets are doing with it what the intellectuals hope for. Or is it simply throwing a lot of money at an undefined problem

    We know that there are winners and losers
    What hasn’t been seen is a documented plan on the $30 billion QE operation, who it’s supposed to get to and what they are expected to do with it when and if it gets there, and finally what they actually did with it

    My mate Wiremu down at the local Marae wants to know how he can get his share


  9. The old saying that there are lies, damned lies and statistics is probably never more true in the current situation… but its likely not because anyone is overtly lying its because definitions are all over the place. For example,

    1 – Our MoH counts suspected cases in the totals, but other countries do not -so our numbers are inflated in comparison. Which approach is right? What is a suspected case and what is the trigger for a case going from suspected to confirmed? The medical people surely know, but us our in the world surely don’t.

    2 – What is a confirmed case? That should be obvious, but what is a confirmed case in one country may not be the same in another. Different countries have different rules that sometimes make no sense.

    3 – What is a Covid-19 death? Again its a bit of a blurry definition as the medical evidence suggests that it is killing some people via heart problems – good old flu etc are lung infections where as Covid-19 causes inflammation in the heart… so its it death by Covid-19 or by heart disease?

    You have to make a a few simplifying assumptions about the stats because the above are thorny questions… The data is clear that older people are more likely to die to Covid-19, but then that is not much different to the mortality curve anyway, at least in NZ. There are clearly outliers… And the biggest killer is heart disease… so back to question 3…

    Why there are such start contrasts between supposedly wealthy countries is a mystery and is likely a confluence of factors that will be difficult to parse… difference-in-difference analysis anyone?


  10. Given that COVID has the biggest impact on older citizens, I do wonder if some differences may be due to the way older people live in their communities (or not) in the various nations. In NZ/Australia retirement villages and rest homes are very prevalent – I wonder if they are much more so than in say Italy/Spain/France and so on, where it might be that older citizens are not perhaps segregated off quite so much?

    Apart from some obvious bad cases here (Rosewood for example) it seems that the rest homes and retirement villages have done a pretty good job of not letting the infection in. I even heard some people complaining on the radio (not too long before lockdown) that they were annoyed that resthomes/retirement villages had put in place some quite strict restrictions on visitors – in actual fact this likely proved to be a very good thing, but people were quite upset about it at the time.

    Just my thoughts – I’d be interested in any thoughts on this one. I could be completely wrong on how older people live in Western Europe of course – interesting if anyone has data on it.


    • I’d be interested in any thoughts on this one. I could be completely wrong on how older people live in Western Europe of course – interesting if anyone has data on it

      Approx. 50% of fatalities in Belgium occurred in old people homes.


      • My dementia aunt in her 70s died from starvation in a Sydney rest home within a year of checking in. No one realised she was not eating when they cleared away the dishes. Another aunt fit as a fiddle in her 80s died of a brain blood clot within 8 months of checking into a Melbourne rest home.

        My mother in Auckland almost in her 90s refuses to go into a rest home. Her opinion is that those rest homes are death traps.


  11. I’m not sure that graph gives us any clarity. It may simply reflect relative efficiency and availability of top medical assistance. What would the number of doctors or medical personal per million look like overlaying that graph? But equally the accuracy of the data may well be low, with open democratic states more likely to release honest data and authoritarian states more likely to “truth manage” for national pride and face saving. The only conclusion I would draw from that graph is living in the EU may endanger your health.


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