Sometime soon—this weekend, or next week, but possibly by tonight—we’ll cross the dark threshold of 200,000 dead from COVID.
For those who still believe in American exceptionalism, rest assured: We’re number one, by a mile. We have 4 percent of the world’s population and 21 percent of its deaths. Lately, we’ve been averaging around 600, 650 deaths a day. That would mean that by Election Day, we’d have another 30,000 dead. But the experts expect things to get worse as the colder weather arrives.
And every day, Donald Trump gets more and more embarrassing, shows himself as more out of it and more callous than he’d been the week before, when he was already saying out of it and callous things. His breaking the death count down to blue deaths vs. red deaths Wednesday was factually wrong (of course) and morally sick, as was his bizarre moving of the goalposts to claim that 200,000 dead would mean “we did a good job. If the not-so-good job was done, you’d be between 1.5 million—I remember these numbers so well—and 2.2 million. That’s quite a difference.”
That “herd mentality” remark to George Stephanopoulos was astonishing. It was funny because he meant “herd immunity,” and the idiot couldn’t even get that right. But when you realize that’s what he meant, it’s anything but funny: The president of the United States was suggesting a “solution” that would leave about three million Americans dead. Two hundred thousand, three million, he doesn’t really care as long as it goes away and the Big 10 plays football and the waiters at Bedminster and Mar-a-Lago can stop wearing those sissy masks.
Trump has uttered hundreds of comments that deserve to live in infamy as emblematic of his incompetence, denialism, self-centeredness, and monstrous indifference to human travails. But not many of them stack up to “Nothing more could have been done. Nothing more could have been done. I acted early. I acted early.”
You don’t have to be Freud to decode that. Any first-year psych major could recognize in those sentences, both repeated to Bob Woodward for emphasis, a brain at war with its fevered, chaotic self; a brain that knows deep down how serious this was and therefore how world-historically badly he fucked this up. Yet that brain has always been in a defensive crouch of blame-avoidance and buck-passing and accountability-dodging with which Trump has gotten away every time and, staggeringly, may still get away with this time.
I gasped last weekend when I saw a tweet noting that Taiwan had just experienced its seventh COVID death. Seventh. If the United States had Taiwan’s per capita COVID death rate, right now we’d have… guess how many deaths. A few thousand? A few hundred? Try 97. And Taiwan is not some backwater. It’s an advanced, industrial nation of 24 million people. Somehow, they handled it.
I was so struck by this tweet that I got out the calculator to look at comparison numbers with some other countries. I ran the numbers for 50 countries, chosen not exactly at random, but mostly larger countries, and spread across every continent (I left out China since it’s widely assumed their numbers aren’t real).
On the list that follows, I name the country. The number in parentheses is that country’s number of actual deaths (as of last weekend, when I did this). The number after the colon is the money number—it’s the number of deaths we’d have in the United States if we had lost people at the same rate as that country did. So here we go. Let’s start with the lowest 20:
1. Taiwan (7): 97
2. Tanzania (21): 116
3. Vietnam (35): 119
4. Thailand (58): 274
5. Uganda (55): 397
6. Democratic Republic of Congo (262): 966
7. Malaysia (128): 1,303
8. New Zealand (24): 1,650
9. South Korea (355): 2,284
10. Cuba (106): 3,096
11. Japan (1,428): 3,725
12. Kenya (622); 3,815
13. Jamaica (40): 4,400
14. Bangladesh (4,733): 9,483
15. Greece (300): 9,519
16. Pakistan (6,383): 9,531
17. Australia (816): 10,560
18. Lebanon (229): 10,952
19. Philippines (4,371): 13,161
20. Czechia, i.e., Czech Republic (456): 14,064
Some of these aren’t surprising, starting with Taiwan. But also Vietnam, New Zealand, South Korea; their aggressive actions in the early days are well known. Others, I have no idea about. Maybe in some cases there’s some luck involved; the virus hasn’t descended too heavily on certain parts of Africa. But presumably a lot of these places took the thing seriously, had heads of state who were obsessed with more than how this made them look on TV, and took a public health infrastructure not nearly as extensive as America’s and made it work. Note, too, how many of the above countries are ones that Trump and his people would call shithole countries.
Now let’s look at the next 20, all of them still far better off than the United States, but nevertheless beginning to creep up the death scale, especially in the last five or so positions:
21. Libya (352): 16,834
22. India (77,472): 18,526
23. Egypt (5,607): 18,823
24. Poland (2,169): 18,935
25. Hungary (631): 21,467
26. Paraguay (496): 23,053
27. Turkey (7,056): 27,589
28. Denmark (629): 35,788
29. Germany (9,348): 36,811
30. Costa Rica (583): 37,723
31. Saudi Arabia (4,213): 39,951
32. Israel (1,090): 41,345
33. Russia (18,517): 41,882
34. Iraq (8,014): 65,787
35. Canada (9,214): 80,653
36. Argentina (11,352): 82,880
37. South Africa (15,447): 85,961
38. Iran (23,157): 90,973
39. Ireland (1,781): 117,546
40. Netherlands (6,292): 121,425
Again, these are countries that red-blooded patriotic Americans tend to look down on, when they look at them at all. And most of them have put the United States of America to shame.
Finally, let’s get to the worst 10 I looked into, five of which are actually worse than the United States, although four are in the same ballpark:
41. France (30,901): 156,161
42. Panama (2,166): 166,228
43. Mexico (70,821): 181,170
44. Sweden (5,846): 192,918
45. Italy (35,597): 195,783
46. Brazil (130,396): 202,022
47. UK (41,703): 202,382
48. Bolivia (7,344): 207,138
49. Spain (29,747): 209,754
50. Peru (30,526): 305,260
So we do have a little company, but it’s hardly company to be proud of. It’s mostly countries that, like the United States, have a well-earned reputation for having royally screwed up some aspect of their response.
“Nothing more could have been done.” In a democracy worthy of the name, Trump would be impeached simply for speaking those words. Surely letting tens of thousands of Americans die through negligence is at least a misdemeanor, and lying about it to the people he was elected to serve is a high crime.
For the record, I asked Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, what more could have been done. He listed six items for starters: massively scaled-up testing; massively scaled-up PPE; retrofitted ventilation in schools and workplaces; a national mask mandate; support for targeted lockdowns with “massive social and economic support for ordinary people” because “you can’t isolate or social distance if you can’t afford to do it”; and finally, a moral “call for national mobilization and sacrifice” while delivering on promises to help people get through this.
That’s leadership. That’s what FDR did in 1933 and what Churchill did in 1940, which Trump and Mike Pence and Ronna McDaniel could never understand.
I think back to mid-March. I remember reading then those University of Washington forecasts, that we could hit 250,000 dead. On the basis of (obviously) zero epidemiological knowledge but a reasonably honed political instinct, I remember thinking: No. This guy is an amoral boob, but surely American ingenuity and innovation will kick in before this hits that point, and, recognizing that it’s good for him politically, Trump will stay out of its way. We have a scientific infrastructure that is the envy of the world; surely Trump can’t destroy that.
But he destroys everything. A part of me thought that even if only for the sake of his vanity, he wouldn’t want to destroy tens of thousands of American lives. I should have known that destroy and lie about it is much truer to his authoritarian nature. When will this end?