But I’m not fully convinced by my colleague’s approach. Consider that the patterns for Covid-19 fatalities often look more region-specific than country-specific: You’ll be more likely to predict a nation’s pandemic toll if you know where it’s located (Western Europe, the Pacific Rim, Africa) than if you know what kind of leader or government it has. Which suggests that some still-mysterious combination of region-specific factors — recent experience with pandemics, a population’s youth or age, pre-existing immunity or genetic inheritance, the differing strains of the virus that show up in different places — establishes the baseline against which individual countries should be judged.
If so, then it probably makes more sense to compare the U.S. death toll to similarly positioned and sized countries — meaning the biggest countries in Western Europe and our major neighbors in the Americas — than to compare us to a global average. And when you compare deaths as a share of population within that group of peer countries, the U.S. starts to look more mediocre and less uniquely catastrophic.
Of the five most populous countries in Western Europe, only Germany has been a great success, with less than one-fifth our coronavirus death rate. Three of the remaining five, Spain and Italy and the United Kingdom, have higher death rates than the U.S., and the fourth, France, isn’t that far below. Likewise with the five largest countries in Latin America, where only Argentina stands out as a clear success, while Brazil and Peru have worse death rates than ours, Mexico is just below us and Colombia a little further down.
Overall, once you observe the general pattern where the Western Hemisphere and Western Europe have been particularly hard hit, it’s hard to distinguish the big countries run by centrists or socialists from the country run by Donald Trump. And the same is true if you look at overall excess death statistics (the number of deaths above normal levels), which fewer countries keep, but which are probably a more accurate measure than a Covid-19-specific count. Again, Germany looks great, but Britain, Spain and Italy all have worse numbers than the United States.
One obvious rejoinder is that many of these countries were hit harder than the U.S. at the outset, when we all were ill prepared, but Trump’s blundering helped give the U.S. its summertime wave, which our peer countries have avoided. But actually both Spain and France have seen late-summer infection waves that have brought them above or close to our infection rate. (We also don’t know where herd immunity lies, and whether some initially hard-hit countries that haven’t seen a summer spike have already reached it: It’s notable that Sweden, which famously never tried a complete lockdown, has seen its rate of daily deaths collapse.)