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The good, the bad and the horrific

Summary:
It’s become a cliche that people use misleading statistics. In this post, I’m going to explain how I believe the Covid-19 data should be organized, and why I don’t like many other ways of describing the pandemic.In this pandemic, there seem to be three distinct regions of the world. Greater Latin America goes from the US-Canadian border all the way down to Cape Horn. The fatality rate is nearly 600/million, and rising fast. Greater Europe reaches across the Atlantic to include Canada. This region has a fatality rate below 300/million, rising modestly. And Asia/Africa/Australia has a vastly lower death rate, somewhere between 20 and 40 per million, rising modestly. You see articles with very different takes. Headlines that India’s now hit harder than any other

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It’s become a cliche that people use misleading statistics. In this post, I’m going to explain how I believe the Covid-19 data should be organized, and why I don’t like many other ways of describing the pandemic.

In this pandemic, there seem to be three distinct regions of the world. Greater Latin America goes from the US-Canadian border all the way down to Cape Horn. The fatality rate is nearly 600/million, and rising fast. Greater Europe reaches across the Atlantic to include Canada. This region has a fatality rate below 300/million, rising modestly. And Asia/Africa/Australia has a vastly lower death rate, somewhere between 20 and 40 per million, rising modestly.

The good, the bad and the horrific

You see articles with very different takes. Headlines that India’s now hit harder than any other country. Or that the US is about equal to the UK and doing better than Spain. I don’t find these ways of framing the data to be useful.

The US is a vast, continental size country, with widely varying fatality rates. You can find areas where the fatality rate is lower than in Canada. At the same time, there’s pretty clearly something going on at the US/Canada border. The best America state (Alaska) has 62 death per million, while in Canada there are provinces with no deaths at all. Indeed they have 8 provinces with a combined death toll of 45, the same as Alaska, but with many times more people than Alaska. So whether you compare averages vs. averages, worst vs. worst, best vs. best, or just similar type states/provinces, the US is clearly doing worse than Canada—by almost all metrics. Indeed Canada as a whole is now doing better than even North Dakota. (BTW, Canada is roughly as urban as America.)

The worst hit parts of Europe are slightly worse off than the US average, but then the worst hit parts of the US are dramatically worse that the worst countries in Europe. People who want to sugar coat our awful outcome like to cherry pick the worst hit parts of Europe and compare that region to the entire US, including places like Alaska. That makes no sense. Compare worst areas with worst areas–say Spain with the northeastern US.

As for India, yes it now has lots of cases. But it also has 1.4 billion people, 4 1/2 times the US population.

When I look at the data I see three distinct areas. US/Latin America, Europe/Canada, and the other 80% of planet Earth. Maybe that will change, but right now that’s the pattern. You can slice or dice the data any way you wish, but if you reach radically different conclusions from me then I suspect that you are manipulating the data to reach a conclusion.


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Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment".

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