Covid-19 responses: USA versus Europe

The Economist published an article about the response to Covid-19 in the USA titled “America’s covid-19 experience is tragic but not that exceptional.” The article compares the United States to Europe, which are both doing more poorly than Asia, African, and at this moment also South America, although the situation in several Latin American countries is worsening.

The articles lists several factors that might contribute to a worse outcome in the United States:
– a profit-oriented health care system
– many people without insurance who may delay treatment
– more people with medical conditions like diabetes

Other factors may work in the US’s favor.
– a younger population
– lower population density

The main reason why it is interesting to compare the US and Europe is the US president Donald Trump who has failed to organize a federal response to the Covid-19 crisis in the United States. Many believe that his idiotic response to the pandemic may have made things worse, especially among his supporters.

However, the Economist claims that so far the US is doing better than Europe.

In typical style, The Economist then finds additional factors that may distort this comparison. Importantly, European countries like Italy were hit by Covid-19 earlier than the United States. In fact, some virological studies suggest that the virus mutated and became more infectious in Europe and that most infections in the United States came from Europe. So, it is possible that Europe was affected worse in the beginning, but responded better to the crisis than the United States, which is still seeing over 20,000 new infections and over 1,000 deaths a day in late May.

To examine the time course of the Covid-19 epidemics in Europe and the United States, I downloaded the US data from Covid-Tracking and the data for European countries from Our World In Data. To compare the response to Covid-19, I computed deaths per 10 Million inhabitants for 49 US states (excluding the island state Hawaii) and 35 European countries: Albania, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK

I then averaged these values. These averages are not weighted by population. Thus, small US states like Wyoming and small European countries like Estonia are weighted equally to big US states like Texas and big European countries like the UK, respectively.

The results show, as expected, that the epidemic in the US lagged the epidemic in Europe. However, around April 20 the US had caught up with Europe and since then the US has recorded more deaths than Europe. Since April 20, average deaths per 10 Million have nearly tripled from around 800 deaths to around 2400 deaths. In, Europe deaths doubled from around 800 to 1,600. The curves also show a much flatter trajectory in Europe than in the US. In Europe most countries have controlled the spread of the virus, while several US states are still showing increasing numbers.

This results contradict the claim in The Economist that the US has performed equally well to Europe. Of course, the results vary dramatically with the US and across European countries, but as a whole the US has performed more poorly than the US. The poor performance is especially noteworthy after the first wave surprised Europe and North America.

A major factor that contributed to the disaster in New York was the lack of testing in the early weeks of March, which resulted in widespread undetected community transmission of the virus. However, New York state quickly ramped up testing and deaths are now decreasing. Other US states had more time to prepare, but are seeing increasing rather than decreasing numbers. Thus, especially for the recent weeks in May it is clear that the US is not handling the crisis as well as Europe.

How much of this poor performance can be attributed to Trump is a political question that may be difficult to answer scientifically. However, even if he doesn’t personally take responsibility, one can only wonder how much better the US response would have been with a president Obama.

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