“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina).
Most of the countries in the wealthy west have started to reopen their economies. As we enter this new phase of the pandemic, there are still stark differences between the countries that really seem to have things under control and those that don’t. I name no names… at least for a couple of paragraphs.
Below is a graph showing the number of daily new cases since March 1 in the U.S., Canada, and a dozen countries that comprise about 90% of the population of western Europe. We’ve used exponential smoothing, an averaging technique that emphasizes recent datapoints more strongly. This approach tones down peaks and valleys, but it does smooth out the bumpiness and makes trends visually easier to spot.
This graph looks messy at first glance. But look closely, tracing single country curves, and you’ll see commonality – most of the countries saw rapid increases in new cases throughout March, with peaks in early- to mid-April and new cases declining steadily after that. The peaks ranged from about 25 New Cases per 1MM population per day for Finland up to about 160 New Cases/MM/day for Spain. However, by the end of May, three of the fourteen countries – Canada, Belgium, and Spain – had seen reductions to about 20 New Cases/MM/day, and eight had even fallen to 10 New Cases/MM/day or less. Switzerland, one of the earliest hot spots, is now down to a just handful of new cases each day.
Sadly, three countries stand out, each with a slightly different story. At the “top” of our list is the U.S. Like most of the rest of the wealthy west, the U.S. began shutting down its economy at the end of March, but unlike almost all the other countries shown, new cases have declined only slightly since then. For much of May, the U.S. led the world in New Cases/MM/day.
The U.S. is a particularly baffling case. The pandemic hit the U.S. a week or two later than the rest of the wealthy west, so we had some time to learn from other countries, but it doesn’t seem that we did. The reasons will be studied for years to come, but they will probably have less to do with science than with national will. The shutdown has been controversial in a nation whose citizens pride themselves on their right to act as they please. And while our federal system – with most governing power in the 50 states – has made us a marvelously efficient and effective economic engine, it can prove a challenge when a coordinated national response is called for.
The reopening has now begun, but do we have the same control over the pandemic that the rest of the countries described above have? The graph suggests that we don’t.
The second “standout” country is Sweden. More than any other country in the wealthy west, Sweden chose to take a laissez-faire approach to the pandemic, keeping schools and most businesses open. Sweden’s rate of New Cases peaked later than the other countries shown – and at a relatively low level – but over the last eight weeks that rate of New Cases has stubbornly failed to decline, and in the wealthy west is matched only by the U.S.’s. Moreover, the death rate from COVID-19, measured on a per-capita basis, is now nearly seven times higher in Sweden than in the neighboring Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark, and Finland. Recent news stories suggest that even in Sweden there is increasing debate about whether that country chose the right path for dealing with the pandemic.
The U.K. is a special case. Even though the U.K.’s rate of New Cases has been declining, I include it as a “standout” not just because its rate of New Cases is still the third-highest of the countries shown, but also because the death rate from COVID-19 – a topic for a separate discussion – is one of the highest in the world and continuing to rise.
This is a dangerous and uncertain time. As the pandemic begins to rage ever more strongly throughout the developing world, it’s essential for the nations of the wealthy west to build on what they have accomplished in the last two months, and not suffer a relapse. And of the countries in the wealthy west, the next two months will be especially challenging for the U.S., the U.K., and Sweden.