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How the US’s Covid-19 death toll compares to that of other wealthy countries

A nurse wearing a personal air purifying respirator in a Covid-19 intensive care unit at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Los Angeles on January 6. | Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

If the US had Canada’s Covid-19 death rate, 225,000 more Americans would likely be alive today.

Despite Covid-19 surges in Europe, the United States of America’s extraordinary death toll remains among the worst in the developed world.

As of January 9, 2021, nearly 373,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the US, with a death rate of more than 1.1 per 1,000 people, according to Our World in Data.

While there are nations with higher death rates, this still puts the US in the top 20 percent for deaths among the world’s developed countries, with more than twice the death rate of the median developed country.

Some numbers to put that in perspective:

  • If the US had the same death rate as the European Union overall, nearly 79,000 Americans who died of Covid-19 would likely still be alive (unless they died of other causes).
  • If the US had the same death rate as Germany, more than 212,000 Americans who died of Covid-19 would likely still be alive.
  • If the US had the same death rate as Canada, nearly 225,000 Americans who died of Covid-19 would likely still be alive.
  • If the US had the same death rate as Australia, nearly 361,000 Americans who died of Covid-19 would likely still be alive. Fewer than 12,000 would have died, compared to the 365,000 who died in reality.
  • If the US had the same death rate as Japan, nearly 363,000 Americans who died of Covid-19 would likely still be alive — and fewer than 10,000 Americans would have died of the disease.

As a result of Covid-19 surges in Europe, the US does look relatively better, compared to other developed nations, than in September. Back then, the US had seven times the death toll as the median developed country. That gap has shrunk massively — to two times.

That’s not because the US has done better but because Europe has done much worse. After managing to largely suppress the coronavirus over the spring and summer of 2020, Europe eased up over the late summer and fall, and saw huge surges as a result.

The European surge has engulfed even countries widely heralded as successful for their fights against Covid-19 — such as Germany, which has recently reported a higher daily Covid-19 death toll than the US.

But Europe is still doing better when you look at deaths since the pandemic began; it at least managed to suppress cases for a time — something the US hasn’t been able to do. One of the key reasons the US death toll remains so high compared to other developed nations is because America suffered a huge summer surge of Covid-19 that other places, including much of Europe, managed to avoid.

And there are some countries that have managed the pandemic well. That includes some European nations like Denmark, Estonia, Cyprus, Finland, Norway, and Iceland. But the biggest success stories are Australia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan — which have broadly adopted more aggressive government measures against the coronavirus than America.

In September, San Marino, Belgium, Spain, the UK, Italy, and Sweden led the US in Covid-19 deaths per million people. But Slovenia and Czechia now also pull ahead of America, while Spain and Sweden have fallen behind.

A chart of the Covid-19 death rate among several developed countries. Our World in Data

So why did the US fail so badly? A lot of this comes down to President Donald Trump. He pushed the country to reopen far too early and quickly, calling on states to “LIBERATE” their economies. He abdicated federal leadership and instead forced states, cities, and private entities to pick up the slack on a host of issues, particularly testing and, recently, vaccines. He downplayed the need for masks, outright mocking people, such as President-elect Joe Biden, for wearing them. The list goes on and on.

In comparison, other leaders around the world have taken Covid-19 more seriously — embracing social distancing, testing and tracing, masking, and, when necessary, more extreme measures like lockdowns. Even with the recent surge of the coronavirus, many countries across Europe have reacted quickly and aggressively by imposing lockdowns, slowing the spread of the virus. The US, by comparison, has by and large remained open, with some states still not requiring masks.

Clearly, not everything has gone perfectly in Europe and other parts of the world. A lot of people and places have screwed up their response to the coronavirus, showing that it’s no easy challenge.

But when the numbers are added up, the US remains an extraordinary failure in its handling of Covid-19.

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