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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The coronavirus death toll just surpassed Vietnam. Here’s why that comparison is fraught.

The Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C. commemorates the deaths of more than 58,000 Americans — a number now exceeded by the coronavirus. A social distancing sign at the wall is shown. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

With each passing week, the toll of the coronavirus hits another milestone. Early this month, the number of deaths in New York City surpassed the death toll on 9/11. The next week, the death toll nationwide surpassed that of every other country. Last week, it edged past the Korean War. And as of Wednesday, officially, more Americans have died from the coronavirus than in the Vietnam War.

But how fair are these comparisons?

All comparisons between dissimilar events carry pitfalls — mostly because the root causes and expectations vary depending upon the circumstances. And this one certainly carries plenty.

The main problem with the comparison between the coronavirus death toll and various armed conflicts is that those conflicts were, depending upon your perspective, elective events. The Vietnam War, in particular, came to be widely regarded as a blunder, and U.S. leaders were accused of remaining in the war far too long.

Graphic: Tracking coronavirus deaths in the United States

The coronavirus, by contrast, was something that was very likely coming to American shores no matter how aggressive the early response. It was a situation that was thrust upon us, in many ways, because of how interconnected our planet is. Around 180 countries have seen the virus come within their borders; for each of them, it was then a matter of minimizing its impact.

If you look at the number of Vietnamese who were caught up in this, there isn’t much comparison: Estimates of the number of Vietnamese killed in the conflict, which pre-dated U.S. involvement, are between 2 million and more than 3 million, including many civilians.

Another key difference is the people involved. Foreign wars claim the lives of American combatants and people who were sent to wage them — some of whom are volunteers, though many, in the case of Vietnam, who were drafted into service. Outbreaks, by and large, target people, who haven’t volunteered or been conscripted into a situation they know to be dangerous. War deaths carry valor, irrespective of the wisdom of any given conflict, that is not applicable to virus outbreaks.

Accordingly, there is also a much larger universe of people who could succumb to a virus outbreak. The United States population is nearly 330 million — a large pool of potential victims — while 3.4 million Americans were sent to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

The time frame is another key difference. While the 58,220 Americans perished in Vietnam over the course of a decade, the first recorded U.S. death from coronavirus came on Feb. 29 in Seattle (though since then, a Feb. 6 death in California has been tied to the virus). That means, depending on your starting point for the virus, the Vietnam War’s death toll has been eclipsed in roughly one-fiftieth the amount of time.

The highest annual U.S. death toll in Vietnam was 16,899 in 1968, or an average of about 1,400 deaths per month — a number below the current daily death toll for the coronavirus. The deadliest week for the United States in the Vietnam War came during the Tet Offensive when more than 500 Americans were killed. Today, we’re seeing nearly four times that many perish in a single day.

Perhaps the most important point, though, is the one about expectations and blame. While war deaths are easy to chalk up to the decisions of politicians who send troops into combat, it’s mostly government inaction that’s at issue with coronavirus deaths, and that’s much harder to pin down. Many countries have been dealing with outbreaks, and while the United States so far has the highest number of cases and the most confirmed deaths (with the caveat that China’s data are unreliable), that can be misleading because of the size of our country.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the United States currently has the sixth-highest number of deaths, relative to population — ranking behind Belgium, Spain, Italy, France and the United Kingdom. We also rank sixth in total confirmed cases per capita. That still places the United States on the very high end of countries worldwide, but it doesn’t suggest our struggle with containing the outbreak is unique.

As Philip Bump noted several weeks ago about the comparison to terrorism and armed conflicts, it’s easy to cherry-pick which comparisons you make. The leading annual causes of death in the United States, for instance, are heart disease and cancer, which claim around 600,000 lives each. Even if its current trajectory somehow lasted until the end of the year, the coronavirus wouldn’t surpass that.

The death toll also remains below some of the worst years for the seasonal flu — albeit in a shorter period of time. That doesn’t mean the flu is a bigger problem; given the coronavirus is more easily transmitted and more deadly, we’d likely have easily surpassed those flu death tolls without significant mitigation efforts, and we have an annual vaccine and proven treatments for the flu. But it does provide some perspective when it comes to how many people die annually of common illnesses.

The real question, then, is whether the deaths were commensurate with how the government should be expected to perform. In the case of wars, it’s a balance between the loss of life and injuries, and the benefit of the conflict. While the Vietnam War only killed half as many Americans as World War I and a small fraction as many as World War II, nobody would compare the two and suggest American involvement in the world wars was a bigger failing. That’s because they resulted in objective victories with important global implications, while the former is widely acknowledged to have been a quagmire.

In the case of an outbreak, it’s a balance between what kind of death toll might reasonably have been expected and what death toll ultimately results. This is complicated and subjective, though, based upon a whole host of factors that many Americans won’t have a handle on and even many experts won’t agree upon. The comparisons to how other countries have dealt with the same situation would seem to be the most apt, but even that isn’t perfectly suited, because of differences in borders, concentration of population, the power of the government to put strict mitigation efforts into place, and many other factors. There is also the balance between loss of life and economic impact, which can also lead to hardship and even death if the country and economy cease to function.

To the extent the comparison between coronavirus deaths and Vietnam is worthwhile, it’s as a measure of the federal and state governments’ failings. While Vietnam was viewed as a poorly thought-out decision punctuated by misinformation from the government about its actual progress, the coronavirus effort has been marred by a slow ramping up of testing and other challenges. Were those problems to be expected given the scale of the problem and how little precedent there is for it? Or were they the result of a failure to competently act upon early warning signs and marshal the power of the government? There’s certainly grist for the latter mill, and this is something we’ll continue to learn more about for in the months and even years to come.

In Vietnam, it’s much easier to say that the cost wasn’t commensurate or understandable, because the objectives by and large weren’t achieved. In the case of the coronavirus, it’s a much more difficult calculus — and one we probably shouldn’t base too much on comparisons to dissimilar events, but rather to the wide universe of contemporary comparisons that are at our fingertips in countries across the world. And even then, focusing on the raw numbers can be deceiving.