September 2020 COVID-19 comparisons: confirmed deaths for the USA, China, and South Korea

Here in the USA, every week presents us with a new normal in our ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Many in this country seem to think that this is just how it has to be or, at the very least, they are woefully ignorant of how much better citizens in other countries have fared than we. Inspired by a question from a friend, it was time to revisit comparisons among the USA, South Korea, and China.

My source? Our World in Data. The metric? Of so many from which to choose, I’ve gone with total confirmed deaths per million in population.

Much has changed since news of the emerging pandemic was filtering to us in January. China’s first death from COVID-19 seems to have occurred on 10 or 11 January. The Hubei lockdowns began with the 11 million people in Wuhan on 23 January. This dramatic move coincided with cancellation of Chinese New Year celebrations. Personally, this was the date (23 Jan.) that I knew that this was going to be a pandemic on a scale I’d not experienced in my lifetime. Why? Because even in China…

That news on January 23rd hit me like a ton of bricks. I’ve remained aghast at people elsewhere seemingly caught unawares. For example, I started suggesting by early March that students would not return to campus after Spring Break and people thought I’d lost my mind. But the writing was on the wall: it was a new virus for which most humans would have no immunity, it was highly virulent with a long and even asymptomatic infectious period, and it seemed to be more deadly than influenza.

There was one obvious strategy for dealing with coronavirus: keep people away from other people, develop tests and test *everyone*, and quarantine folks who tested positive or had contact with an infected person. This is what China and South Korea rapidly implemented in their public health response. The USA, not so much.

By early March, all three countries had buried their first COVID-19 victims, but folks in the US still weren’t taking it seriously, largely because our President was lying to the American people.

Note the Y-axis scale: this dramatic increase in deaths was ~2/million for China and 1.5 for South Korea.

Since early March, the story has been decidedly different. Our early outbreak in New York City rapidly propelled the death rate upwards in the USA, and we haven’t adequately addressed it even 8–9 months into the pandemic.

So that’s the answer: Here in the USA we’ve accumulated a death rate of ~618 people/million, while in China and South Korea the comparable death rate is single digits. This public health nightmare in the United States was completely avoidable. It should have been a subject of caution and care, and it might even have changed the way we do some things. But it did not have to result in 200,000 (and steadily climbing) American deaths. That’s all due to mismanagement.

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