America is recording nearly 2,000 covid-19 deaths a day, according to a seven-day average compiled by Johns Hopkins University. That is only 40% below the country’s January peak. But the true death toll is even worse. The Economist’s excess-deaths model, which estimates the difference between the actual and the expected number of deaths recorded in a given period, suggests that America is suffering 2,800 pandemic deaths per day, with a plausible range of 900 to 3,300, compared with 1,000 (150 to 3,000) in all other high-income countries, as defined by the World Bank. Adjusting for population, the death rate is now about eight times higher in America than in the rest of the rich world.
ON SEPTEMBER 13TH pupils in New York City, America’s biggest school district, will make a full return to classrooms for the first time since the start of the pandemic. That will be a relief for many parents. But it will also bring fear. In America, until recently adults suffered the highest infection rates; today the virus is spreading fastest among young people (see chart). Cases in children are surging, accounting for more than a quarter of total infections in the country in the week ending September 2nd.
Compared with other school districts, New York City is something of a straggler. Pupils in Tuloso-Midway School District in Texas have been back at their desks since the middle of July. Children in Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest school district, began their studies four weeks ago. Parents in New York City will doubtless be wondering whether and how the return to school elsewhere has contributed to the recent spike in cases among young people.
As news circulated of a worrying new virus spreading in the Chinese city of Wuhan in the early days of 2020, experts worried that infections would quickly reach South-East Asia and overwhelm the region’s health-care systems. Thailand was one of the main destinations for Chinese tourists; the first case outside China was reported there on January 13th, 2020. The first known death from covid-19 outside China occurred in the Philippines. A Chinese tourist who had visited Indonesia from Wuhan tested positive on returning home, suggesting he took the virus on holiday with him.
Yet it was Iran and Italy that became the first global hotspots. America, the rest of Europe and Brazil were soon engulfed. India got walloped. All through 2020 and the early part of this year, South-East Asia remained relatively unscathed. By the start of June, the region of 668m people had reported fewer than 77,000 deaths from the disease. Britain, with a tenth as many people, had chalked up more than 128,000. South-East Asia, it seemed, had escaped the worst of the pandemic.
ow many people have died because of the covid-19 pandemic? The answer depends both on the data available, and on how you define “because”. Many people who die while infected with SARS-CoV-2 are never tested for it, and do not enter the official totals. Conversely, some people whose deaths have been attributed to covid-19 had other ailments that might have ended their lives on a similar timeframe anyway. And what about people who died of preventable causes during the pandemic, because hospitals full of covid-19 patients could not treat them? If such cases count, they must be offset by deaths that did not occur but would have in normal times, such as those caused by flu or air pollution.
The number of new daily cases is currently around 25,000, somewhat fewer than in Britain, and rising. But whereas in Britain this surge has translated into an average of 18 daily deaths over the past week, in Russia it has resulted in an average of 670 deaths a day.
The contrast is all the more striking because Russia was the first country in the world to approve a working vaccine, one based on the same science as the British-Swedish AstraZeneca one and apparently just as effective. But whereas in Britain 78% of the population has received at least one jab, in Russia the proportion is only 20%. The difference is not the availability or the efficacy of the jab, but people’s trust in the government and its vaccines.
All of this could have been avoided. A year ago the government decided to lift a partial lockdown (Mr Putin called it “a holiday”), hoping to save itself money and to prop up the president’s faltering popularity after a prolonged slump in incomes. Mr Putin’s ratings did go back up—but so did the risk of infection.
ON JULY 4TH President Joe Biden stood on the White House lawn to declare that America was nearing independence from the coronavirus. But with covid-19 not fully “vanquished”, he called upon his fellow citizens to get vaccinated, telling them that “it’s the most patriotic thing you can do.” About 55% of Americans over the age of 12 have now been fully vaccinated, and a further 10% have had the first of two doses. But in recent weeks America’s vaccination rate has slowed markedly. In April 3m doses were administered each day; since June that figure has fallen to an average of 1m per day.
There are three possible explanations for this slow-down. The first is that it is typical for vaccination rates to fall as more people are jabbed, since those in cities and other easy-to-reach areas are likely to have been targeted already. Yet America does not appear to have reached such a threshold. Other rich countries, such as sparsely populated Canada, continued to vaccinate at a decent clip until about 75% of their populations had received their first dose (see left-hand chart). Germany, which has vaccinated a similar proportion of its citizens as America, is currently vaccinating at nearly three times the rate.
AT A PRESS conference at the White House on June 22nd Anthony Fauci, the director of America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, issued a warning. The delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, first identified in India in February, was spreading in America—and quickly. “The delta variant is currently the greatest threat in the US to our attempt to eliminate covid-19,” declared Dr Fauci. Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, issued a similar warning a week earlier. To contain the rapid spread of the variant, European countries and Hong Kong have tightened controls on travellers from Britain.
According to GISAID, a data-sharing initiative for corona- and influenza-virus sequences, the delta variant has been identified in 78 countries (see chart). The mutation is thought to be perhaps two or three times more transmissible than the original virus first spotted in Wuhan in China in 2019. It is rapidly gaining dominance over others. According to GISAID’s latest four-week average, it represents more than 85% of sequenced viruses in Bangladesh, Britain, India, Indonesia and Russia. It may soon be the most prevalent strain in America, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. (GISAID does not, in its summary data, distinguish between delta, B.1.617.2, and the “delta plus” mutation, AY.1, AY.2.)
AT THE turn of the twentieth century, a newborn white American could expect to live for around 48 years. That was 15 years longer than a newborn African-American could expect. Improvements in hygiene, medicine and other public-health measures led those numbers to rise dramatically. By mid-century, life expectancy for African-Americans had nearly doubled, to 61 years, while for white Americans it rose to 69. By 2017 the gap had narrowed further, to three and a half years: 75.3 for African-Americans, 78.8 for whites. But Hispanic Americans outlive them both, to an average of 81.8 years. In other words, both races have progressed significantly, but gaps remain. This same pattern exists across a number of metrics.
The most disturbing aspect of this pattern is not just the enduring gap in outcomes between black and white Americans, though it has narrowed markedly. It is that, as the work of Anne Case and Angus Deaton, both economists at Princeton, has shown, life expectancy fell for all demographic groups of Americans between 2014 and 2017 for the first time since 1993. The rise in mortality rates has been especially stark for whites without college degrees, owing to what they call “deaths of despair”: drug overdoses, suicide and diseases caused by heavy drinking.
In particular, it is pretty clear to me that specifically in the U.S., the non-COVID excess mortality has been very high. I do not think that’s under-counted COVID deaths. I think it’s due to other causes. We’ve already seen that car accident deaths were up, even though total miles driven was down by a lot.
So yay for their statistics in grabbing the excess deaths, but boo for assuming all those excess deaths were COVID.
Now, results of COVID and COVID policies, sure, I’d go with that. But do you want to start digging into the stats of suicides, drug overdoses, “accidental” deaths, and more? How about deaths of neglect? I bet that is involved in a bunch of non-COVID elderly deaths.
The record suggests that, after periods of massive non-financial disruption such as wars and pandemics, GDP does bounce back. It offers three further lessons. First, while people are keen to go out and spend, uncertainty lingers. Second, crises encourage people and businesses to try new ways of doing things, upending the structure of the economy. Third, as “Les Miserables” shows, political upheaval often follows, with unpredictable economic consequences.
The Communist Party has long known that, partly as the result of its brutal birth-control policies, China’s population would soon peak and start to shrink. It has been startled, however, by how rapidly that moment has drawn near. Now, it looks as if it might have arrived.
There are also indications that China’s total fertility rate (the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime) has dropped faster than previously thought. Chinese planners have assumed a rate of 1.8, but some Chinese scholars (and the World Bank) say it between 1.6 and 1.7. A working paper released in March by China’s central bank suggests the rate is no more than 1.5.