Every day I hear someone say, “We should have managed the pandemic the way Europe did.”
No we shouldn’t have. Europe is having a total pandemic meltdown, and the data shows it.
The graph below shows the number of Covid-19 deaths per million people during the past 2 weeks on the vertical axis. Population is shown on the horizontal axis. Orange points are European countries. Blue points are American states. The data used to create the graph is from Johns Hopkins University and was current as of November 1, 2020.
The graph is a bit of an eye exam chart, but the overall gestalt is what’s important. If you look at the US overall (shown on the far right), about half the states are better than America as a whole (they are shown lower on the graph) and about half are worse (shown higher on the graph). Perhaps more surprisingly, about half the European countries are also better, and about half are also worse.
The countries of Iceland and Norway and the states of Maine and Vermont are not shown on the graph because they each have death rates lower than 1 per million.
States and countries with small populations can obscure the big picture. Three of the currently worst US states are among the 6 smallest states in the US. Iceland, Norway, and Finland all have populations of about 5 million or less, which would put them into the bottom half of US states by population.
If we restrict the data set to only states and countries with populations of 10 million or more, we produce the graph shown here:
Over the past two weeks, the larger countries that are doing better against the pandemic than the US are Russia, Greece, Germany, and Sweden.
Every other country of any size in Europe is doing worse than the US, including Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Romania, Belgium, and Czechia.
In short, 4 of the largest European countries are doing better than America, and 11 are doing worse.
The logarithmic scale might obscure the magnitude of the differences. Here is a different representation of the recent fatality rates of larger US states, European countries, and the US overall.
So which of these countries should America be like? Not Belgium, not France, not the UK, not Spain, not the Netherlands, and not Italy. Should the US be more like Russia? I don’t have much confidence in the numbers being reported by Russia, so I won’t consider it further.
That leaves Greece, Germany, and Sweden, and those countries have had three significantly different approaches to managing the pandemic.
How are the Least Affected Countries in Europe Managing the Pandemic?
Greece significantly relaxed restrictions over the summer months, allowing gatherings of 50–100 in most of the country, allowing both indoor and outdoor restaurant and cafe dining (source), and public swimming. However, at the beginning of November, Greece is imposing stricter measures (source).
Germany has been strict throughout the pandemic, with gatherings limited to two households, restaurant service limited to takeout only, and travel limited to essential travel only (source).
Sweden — the least affected large country in Europe — has been comparatively relaxed about the pandemic from the beginning (source). Face masks are not required and are not generally worn. Gatherings are limited to 50 individuals or smaller. The Swedish government has recommended limited use of restaurants, shops, malls, swimming facilities, and gyms, but compliance is not required, and the recommendations are intended primarily for people age 70 and older (source).
Which Country Should America Emulate?
If we choose Germany, we should be stricter. If we choose Sweden, we should be more relaxed. If we choose Greece, we should more often swing from strict to relaxed and back to strict again. Europe’s experience provides no clarity about what America should be doing differently.
We are already doing better than most of the largest countries in Europe, so perhaps the bottom line is that we should stop thinking about emulating Europe, and Europe should start thinking about emulating us.
More Details on the Covid-19 Information Website
I lead the team that contributes the CovidComplete forecasts to the CDC’s Ensemble model. For more graphs, forecasts at the US and state-level, and forecast evaluations, check out my Covid-19 Information website.