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The media's misleading use of COVID-19 data

The media's misleading use of COVID-19 data
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How many times have we heard in recent months that the United States has only about 5 percent of the world’s population, but more than 20 percent of the world’s COVID-19 deaths? Most media outlets have routinely repeated this information, typically as “evidence” of the monumental failure of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic.

Last week, for example, CNN’s Jake TapperJacob (Jake) Paul TapperNY Times slammed for glowing Farrakhan op-ed: 'You would think he was a gentleman' Democrats condemn Trump's rhetoric against Michigan governor as allies defend rally Illinois governor blames Trump's allies for state's wrong direction on coronavirus MORE ended a highly contentious interview with White House adviser Peter Navarro by cutting his mic after he accused CNN of “not [being] honest with the American people.” Mr. Tapper then looked in the camera and sternly repeated one of CNN’s favorite Trump rebukes: “I would just like to remind the American people watching that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and the United States has more than 20 percent of the world’s coronavirus deaths. That is a fact.”

Yes, it is indeed a “fact” — but is it a useful one for measuring the success or failure of Trump’s COVID-19 response? Not really.

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The problem with using this data point is that it is inherently skewed by the overall size of the U.S. population. With more than 330 million people, any significant COVID-19 death count would appear outsized in global percentage terms, offering critics an easy ability to make it appear far worse than it is, particularly as the United States surpasses 200,000 fatal cases.

In fact, when compared with similar (Western democratic) countries with far smaller populations, the United States does better than many, and about the same as most. Based on data gleaned from the UN’s 2019 Revision of World Population Prospects and the Johns Hopkins CSSE COVID-19 Dashboard as of Sept. 20, I calculate that while the U.S. COVID-19 death count is between four and five-times greater than its global population percentage (20 percent/4.25 percent), Belgium has a COVID-19 death count seven-times greater than its population percentage (1.04 percent/0.15 percent). On the same metric, Spain and Britain come in at more than five-times greater; Italy and Sweden a bit under five-times greater; and France, Ireland, The Netherlands, Canada, and Switzerland between four-times greater and two-times greater.

All of a sudden, the United States is not looking like the disastrous outlier much of the national media would have you believe. 

I should note that the same applies when looking at many countries outside of North America and Western Europe. Chile, for example, has a COVID-19 death count more than five-times greater than its population percentage, while South Africa and Romania each come in between two and three-times greater.

There are of course countries (such as Germany), and regions (such as East Asia) that have done far better in terms of managing the worst effects of the pandemic. And there is certainly much to criticize regarding the Trump administration’s initial handling of the pandemic, as well as some of the sporadic and lackluster efforts since.

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But considering that the United States has the world’s largest and most vibrant economy — not to mention a political culture oriented around social and economic openness and vitality — it seems to have largely struck the right balance between protecting public health (particularly for the most vulnerable) and stabilizing the economy. Compared with the spring, when COVID-19 deaths were exploding, and the national economic lockdown (albeit necessary) was slashing nearly 33 percent off America’s annualized GDP, the death rate is now 50-60 percent lower, while the best projections are forecasting a 32 percent GDP rebound in the third quarter.

With a pivotal presidential election fast approaching, and (partisan) emotions running high, it is likely too much to ask for unvarnished facts to be presented in their most honest light. And while the history books will have much to consider with regard to what the U.S. government could have done differently in the face of this once-in-a-century global pandemic, by any reasonable assessment the American system as a whole has managed — at least thus far — about as well as could be expected. Unlike what many in the media like to tell you, the objective numbers actually bear this out.

Stuart Gottlieb teaches international affairs and public policy at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the United States Senate (1999-2003).