The U.S. has come under fire for mishandling the coronavirus pandemic. Is this criticism justified, or is it misplaced?
As we approach one full year of living with COVID-19, no country has received more criticism for its handling of the virus (perhaps with the exception of China) than the United States.
The U.S. is often lauded as having one of the worst COVID-19 responses globally, with the Atlantic stating that America has “careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.”
I want to scrutinize the claim that America has done abhorrently worse than other nations with regards to handling COVID-19, and explain why such analyses are like comparing apples to oranges.
Of course, none of this is to say America has handled the virus perfectly, but when critics ignore the below points, I believe their criticism comes off as disingenuous and absent of nuance.
Firstly, let’s begin with the death count. The U.S. leads the world in COVID-19 deaths with over 330,000 deaths, which is a harrowing figure no matter which way you look at it. However, looking at raw numbers isn’t the best metric to go off, simply because this figure ignores proportionality.
The U.S. is of course going to have a higher raw number of fatalities than New Zealand because there are far more people. When we use a per capita metric, the U.S. is actually ranked tenth in the world for COVID-19 deaths, with the U.K. in fact doing worse.
Now obviously, being tenth in the world when it comes to COVID-19 deaths is still nothing to brag about, but even this position mightn’t be entirely accurate.
This is largely due to testing rates. Obviously, the more tests you do, the more clarity you’ll get around the number of people with the virus.
Testing Rates Per Country
According to Our World in Data, as of December 25th, the U.S. leads the world in COVID-19 testing at 698 tests per 1000 people.
Meanwhile, there’s no data for China, most of Africa, and parts of Central and South America. Comparatively, India is testing 120 per thousand, less than a fifth of the U.S.’s testing rate.
This is important to note, as the disparity in COVID-19 cases and deaths between countries is almost impossible to discern without comparable testing rates.
Take India, for example, which has over 1 billion more people than the U.S., is a much more densely populated country, and has far more prevalent socioeconomic issues and lack of access to healthcare. And yet, India is seemingly faring much better than America when it comes to COVID-19 cases and deaths.
While this may be due, in part, to some form of immunity to the virus as a result of prior exposure to similar viruses, as well as having a relatively younger population, the lack of transparency when it comes to testing and the reporting of COVID-19 deaths is certainly something to be considered.
As the BBC has stated: “India missing a lot of deaths, considering only a small fraction of the population has been tested – around 2% – and many deaths are not being medically reported… Also, only one in four deaths in India is certified for a cause.”
Moreover, an analysis by the New York Times found roughly 412,000 COVID-19 deaths globally that weren’t reported across 35 countries.
Without equal transparency provided through testing and death counts, it will never be entirely clear how COVID-19 has impacted various countries.
As the CDC reported in September, just 6% of the hundreds of thousands of deaths related to COVID-19 didn’t include any comorbidities on the death certificate.
The harsh reality is that having comorbidities such as respiratory issues, diabetes and other health conditions will increase the likelihood of suffering a severe case of COVID-19, in addition to the possibility that COVID-19 itself creates some of these comorbidities.
As such, the damage wrought by the virus in the U.S. cannot be separated cleanly from the underlying health conditions that existed prior to the virus’s arrival.
Put simply, each country is not an even playing field when it comes to their handling of the virus, as populations differ among countries.
There are plenty of additional variations between countries, like population density, UV exposure per country, average age per country, the proportion of people in a low socio-economic status without sufficient access to healthy food or healthcare and so on.
Again, these reasons highlight the difficulty of comparing countries handling of coronavirus, as countries themselves aren’t interchangeable.
A Myopic View of the Virus
Lastly, as I’ve covered previously, COVID-19 cases and deaths are just one metric to examine when determining how well a country has dealt with the novel coronavirus.
It isn’t as simple as examining the extent to which a country’s population has contracted or avoided the virus, because there are many ancillary concerns that can stem from coronavirus responses.
As has been seen in the U.S., wealth inequality has widened significantly during the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns, with ten of the richest people in America seeing their wealth increase collectively by over $400 billion this year alone.
Additionally, social isolation, job loss, and business closures as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns are believed to be contributing to higher suicide and depression rates, and an estimated 500,000 babies won’t be born this year.
You then have people avoiding the hospital, in some cases even when they have life threatening illnesses, out of fear of catching the virus.
These social costs will have long-standing impacts on countries, and should be considered an important factor when determining how a country has handled the virus when all is said and done.
In conclusion, no two countries are alike in terms of their geography, population, and testing capacities. When criticisms of the U.S.’s handling of COVID-19 miss these basic points, I believe they are insufficient and don’t hold water.