International Policy Digest

Shealah Craighead
Politics /10 Nov 2020

Trump and COVID: The Great Irony

Many commentators are arguing that the defeat of Donald Trump (which appears to have been substantial, not marginal), was more a result of his COVID-19 failures and not so much to do with his awful economic and industrial policies, his trade wars and threats (e.g. towards Greece), his warrior stance in foreign policy, his chauvinism or the brilliance of his opponent. Of course, the future will see lots of hindsight studies.

But, in the meantime we can accept that the debacles of COVID-19 were a fundamental element in the present electoral collapse of Trump if not Trumpism, which may live on in the wider political sense. Without the COVID element, Trump would probably have just won his 2nd term. This is where irony enters the picture.

What is ironic, then, is that on the basis of my own research since February, Trump and his policy failure did not cause the United States to have an especially bad performance on the measured grounds of COVID-19 incidence or mortality. Whatever he might have done the COVID outcome would have hardly altered. Of course, if he had been perfect, immediate, and precise, and everyone had followed him and “the science,” then it may have made some measurable difference.

However, my case is that, with the exception of Germany, the Trump administration did no worse than the governments of all rich nations in Europe and the West generally and had a better performance than did Belgium or Spain or Italy or – of course – the UK. As an opponent of Trump and an admirer of irony, I am quite happy with this, but it is surely worth noting that Trump has probably fallen on spurious grounds when so many other faults could have been his pitfalls!

Of course, Trump did worse than the richer nations of East Asia and possibly of China itself. But so too did all large European nations and most other nations throughout the world – bear in mind that the population of the United States is presently 325 million just about equal to that of the 2017 Euro Area. But in the election, he was not condemned for failing to match Taiwan or South Korea or Japan, and if that were a generally warranted political test then throughout Europe there should now be massive unrest amongst electorates and serious challenges to existing governments. But there is nary a bleep.

From the beginnings of the pandemic until today there have been 50.4 million recorded coronavirus cases, and nearly 1.3 million COVID deaths have been registered globally. The United States is represented hugely – with 10,188,180 cases and 243,302 deaths up to today. It is such figures that lost Trump the election, for they are easy to report and illustrate. It was nicely dramatic to say that, as a virus victim, America was suffering far more than a huge poor nation such as India (98,519,495 cases, 126,235 deaths) or the old arch-enemy Russia (1,774,334 cases, 30,537 deaths). Whilst India has 4 times the population of the United States, and the Russian population is less than half that of the United States, such distinctions rarely arose in the mass media. Russia’s clearly corrupt government could be claimed, therefore, as more than twice as efficient as Trumpian governance.

This is about as far with statistics that most of the American electorate would ever have gone, and it helped mightily to stop the Trump bandwagon. Table 1 below gives some systematic comparative dimension to the American problem.

In table 1 Cm is cases per million, Dm deaths per million, D/C a measure of mortality rate; PPPUS$ measures the purchasing power parity per capita in each nation based on UN calculations.

The total cases from the 16 top COVID nations of table 1 amount to 36,524,890 or 72% of the world total on 8th November. The United States alone represents 20% of the world total, and the total cases of the 7 major nations of Europe (with COVID cases of over half a million each) amount to only two-thirds of the American total.

It was natural enough for an American electorate to compare the American gross figures with those of Europe, allies and NATO partners – France with 1.7 million cases, Spain with 1.4 million, Britain with 1.2 million, Italy with 902 thousand, Germany with 660 thousand, and so on. The total cases of these 5 major European nations is thus around not much more than half that of the U.S. The Democrats were also happy to look at the comparative mortality figures – France 40,169, Spain 38,833, Britain 48,888, Italy 41,063, Germany 11,448, the total of which, 180,451, is well below the figure of 243,302 for the United States. This is what explains Biden’s repeated emphasis on COVID-19 mismanagement as the measure of an incompetent, arrogant, and uncaring Trumpian administration.

Astonishingly, especially during the climax of the election campaign, Trump and his advisors made not the slightest attempt at any sort of fulsome riposte to this. For instance, they might have mentioned that the total population of five such key European nations amounts to around 319.1 million, which makes the comparison a little more balanced. But even better would have been to pick off more precise comparative points. While it’s true that America’s cases per million were 30,716, those of Belgium were 42,573! More importantly, U.S. deaths per million were 734, but in Spain, they were 830, in the UK 719, in Italy 680, in Belgium the figure reaches a terrible 1,112.

That is, in per capita terms – the only fair estimates that are available – the United States looks far more like Europe. It gets more complicated. All figures depend on the degree of testing. Since the outbreak of the pandemic Trump’s America tested over 472 thousand per million of its citizens. Only Britain has official estimates for testing greater than this, at over 523 thousand per million, and trailing well behind are France with 270 thousand, Spain with 386 thousand, Italy with 284 thousand, and even the supposedly superior German system records only 279 thousand tests per million. All national testing figures are problematic, but there is little reason to think that the U.S. data is systematically less reliable than that of Europe.

It follows that the U.S. estimated deaths per cases ratio, the figure most commonly used as “the registered mortality rate,” which stands now at 2.4%, actually compares favourably with those of its own North American neighbours (Canada at 4.0, Mexico at 9.8), is approximately the same as the ratios for France and Belgium, and is much better than those for Britain (4.2) and Italy (4.5). At 1.7% only Germany amongst major European nations outcompetes the U.S. on mortality rates over the whole of the COVID months. Given that the U.S. has a very high level of testing, then it can be argued that so far the United States under Trump has done reasonably well in comparison to Europe in terms of mortality per capita, and even more so in terms of mortality per registered case.

An alert or intelligent Trump, or simply one much better advised, could have met the Democratic case relatively easily. And, in particular, its lower mortality rate can be said to be a much better indicator of COVID-19 policy than the mere gross number of cases, which are frankly mischievous as a basis for comparison between nations or as an estimation of the progress of policy in any one nation.

So, it’s quite a global irony. Trump loses the presidency on the basis of an element of policy in which the U.S. actually did quite well when compared to nations of similar wealth and medical knowledge and social infrastructure. I am quite happy about this, but it’s worth remembering for the future or other cases! As I write, the President-Elect Joe Biden is talking on the BBC of the need to wear masks, that this is essential and not “a political statement”; yet it clearly is. It is founded on the ground that Trump’s neglect of such issues has caused a disaster.

The deeper truth is that when looked at globally, both the incidence of and the mortality from COVID-19 have little to do with exact details of policy. Thus, poor nations with demographic characteristics that ensure many youngsters and few elderly people, will obviously suffer fewer cases and even less mortality than rich nations in Europe or in America. This has been found to be the case through careful comparative analysis. This is illustrated in table 1 column PPP, where the very poor and largest of nations, India, has the lowest rates of mortality. South Africa, the poorest nation of the table, has extremely low COVID incidence and mortality. Even more vividly – Poland – within Europe – but with less than half the per capita income of the U.S., has much less COVID mortality than the United States or any major European economy.

Again, the degree of connectivity probably dictates quite a lot – the United States is a large trader and tourist nation, in receipt of masses of foreign businesses that involve a myriad of connections and contacts. It has very long land borders with its two major traders – Mexico and Canada, both with high COVID incidence – see table 1 above. It has very high levels of air pollution and urbanity, which together very probably increase both rates of incidence and mortality. America has not done especially well in the COVID months, but the same is true of most of Europe. The world’s COVID mortality as a proportion of its known cases, what we call its mortality rate, is 2.5%, just above the United States’ at 2.4%. There is no reason to believe that a Democratic regime would have done much better. We shall see what happens under the new U.S. government, with its Democrat president but also its fractious Senate and its problematic Supreme Court.

Trump fell on the stony ground of COVID-19. Yet policy is only one of a complex set of factors that determines COVID incidence and mortality in any country. When nations on an income and cultural par are considered, the United States does not emerge as a hopeless case. It is closer to a disappointing Western average. If Trump is to be condemned, then so too are many others.