The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

By the metrics Trump himself chose to use to measure his coronavirus response, he’s doing poorly

President Trump listens to a question from a reporter as he speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden on March 30. (Alex Brandon/AP)

It was one week ago when President Trump’s comparison of the novel coronavirus pandemic to the number of deaths in car crashes each year prompted me to explain why that analogy made little sense. The argument came down to rate of change. Yes, nearly 40,000 people die in car crashes every year, far more than had died at that point from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. But the number of people dying from covid-19 was escalating quickly and was expected by some experts to pass the number of annual automobile deaths.

We don’t shut down the economy for 40,000 annual vehicle fatalities — but we also don’t see the number of automobile fatalities increase by a factor of 10 every 10 days.

One main point of that article (and another looking at Trump’s comparison of the coronavirus to the seasonal flu) was that we simply didn’t know how many deaths covid-19 would cause in the country. That was on March 24, when the number of deaths totaled 706.

Since then, 2,710 more people have died. In the past four days, including incomplete data from Tuesday, an average of 459 people have died of covid-19 each day.

The total just passed the number of deaths in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a significant marker for a variety of reasons.

But it’s also a somewhat arbitrary comparison, given that the 3,400 deaths as of this writing occurred over more than a month, while the Sept. 11 deaths occurred on one day. These comparisons are necessarily a bit ghoulish, but it’s worth keeping in mind how the two differ.

A better comparison at this moment might be the Vietnam War. Nearly 60,000 Americans were killed in that conflict, including almost 17,000 in 1968 alone. Those figures are far higher than the number of coronavirus deaths.

On a daily basis, though, the virus has exacted a larger toll. The deadliest day of 1968 came with the Tet Offensive that January, during which 246 Americans were killed.

The rate at which covid-19 is killing Americans is nearly equivalent to two Tet Offensives every day.

These gory examples are still somewhat awkward fits, since the nature of a virus is distinct from that of armed conflict or terrorism. Compared with other prominent causes of death each year, the number of covid-19 deaths is still relatively small.

But again, a comparison by day shows why the ongoing pandemic is so worrisome. As many Americans are dying of covid-19 on a daily basis at this moment as die from any sort of accident on an average day. More than four times as many are dying of covid-19 each day as die on average in car crashes.

We added the estimated death toll from the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic because Trump repeatedly used this as a point of comparison earlier this month as he disparaged the Obama administration’s handling of that outbreak. He has largely moved away from that comparison, for obvious reasons.

More are also dying of covid-19 than on an average day in the 2017-2018 flu season, the deadliest in recent years. Again, though, the analogy doesn’t quite work. The seasonal flu, like the coronavirus, has peaks and valleys. The deadliest week of that virus was the second week of January 2018, when more than 1,000 people a day, on average, died of either the flu or pneumonia.

This isn’t meant to play down the threat posed by the coronavirus. After all, that was the daily average in the deadliest week in the deadliest recent seasonal-flu year. The deadliest week of this flu season was also the second week of January, when about 628 people died of those two illnesses each day on average — closer to where covid-19 is now.

We still have the same limitation we had last week, though: We don’t know when this will peak. The most recent estimates from the White House are that 100,000 to 200,000 people might die. Some experts think those estimates are low.

If that’s the case, the comparisons above will be largely useless. The coronavirus will have become the third-leading cause of death in the country. It’s almost impossible to minimize the significance of a threat at that scale. “It’s not as deadly as cancer” is hardly reassuring.