The White House this week decided to respond to those concerns, reintroducing daily briefings that they think will allow Trump to better position himself as being in control. (His track record in this regard isn’t great.) Trump himself is taking a slightly different tack — arguing that, actually, things here are pretty good.
As he did on Tuesday morning.
By comparison to most countries, Trump says, the United States is “doing very well.” That’s obviously not true.
It does depend, of course, on what you’re measuring. So let’s walk through a series of ways in which it might be measured and see how the United States is faring.
We’ll start with the number of confirmed cases. The United States has, as of this writing, more than a quarter of the cases recorded globally since the pandemic emerged — which doesn’t suggest we’re “doing well.”
Trump has argued repeatedly that this is a function of expanded testing, one of the things we are doing that few other countries could have done, he would surely claim. While it is obviously true that more testing has allowed us to identify more cases, other countries have done less testing in large part because the virus isn’t spreading as broadly. Countries such as South Korea tested a lot early, allowing them to contain the virus. We didn’t, so the virus spread broadly, giving us more cases to identify.
The better caveat here is that the United States has a lot more people than other countries. If we look at the number of cases as a function of population, the United States drops to 10th out of the more than 180 countries for which Johns Hopkins University researchers are collecting data. We’re not seeing cases at the population-adjusted rate of Qatar, but even on this metric we’re not doing well relative to most countries.
This is a tally of cases since the pandemic emerged. If we look only at the spread of the virus lately, considering the most recent seven-day average of new daily cases, the United States is again seeing the worst outbreak of any country.
Adjusted for population, we are faring seventh-worst at the moment, a bit better than Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain, Montenegro, Oman, Panama and South Africa.
Trump has taken to focusing on the death toll instead of the new case totals, thanks largely to the number of daily deaths remaining low even as the number of new U.S. cases has quickly grown.
Overall, the United States accounts for a bit under a quarter of all of the global recorded deaths from the virus.
Some countries, notably China and Iran, have reported dubious data on their death tolls, so consider an asterisk sitting alongside those numbers. Working with what we have, though, the United States is clearly faring worse than many other places.
Adjusting for population, that remains true. The United States has been the 10th-hardest hit as a function of population. Notice that Europe, where cases grew quickly in the early spring, accounts for a lot of the countries where the per-population death toll has been largest.
The United States is also currently seeing the second-worst rate of new deaths globally, behind only Brazil.
Adjusted for population, our daily death rate puts us in a tie for 11th-worst internationally. Again, Kyrgyzstan has the worst current death toll relative to its size.
It’s important to remember that the rate at which the virus is currently spreading affects metrics such as overall death toll. While Europe has seen heavy death tolls as a function of population, new cases aren’t spreading quickly there. In the United States, they are — and even if fewer of those cases result in death, some of those infected will die, driving up the death total in this country.
Trump and his team have emphasized the mortality rate in the United States frequently in recent weeks. That metric, calculating the percentage of those infected with the virus who end up dying, has remained low as cases have surged — because cases have surged. There is a weeks-long lag between confirming cases and deaths, as patients get sicker.
So the White House has been pointing to the current ratio of cases to deaths, taking some advantage of the fact that many of the cases that have been tallied in the last month may not have progressed to the point of death. And on that metric — recent mortality rate — the United States is actually somewhere in the middle of the pack.
The United States also benefits from the fact that many countries are seeing so few cases of late. If a country has seen only 10 new cases on average over the past week and one of those patients dies, that’s a 10 percent mortality rate — higher than in the United States, but Americans would obviously prefer to be in that other country’s position than ours.
Looking at the total U.S. mortality rate since the pandemic emerged, we don’t do quite as well anyway. In the spring, the virus was much deadlier, in part because it spread in elder-care facilities and in part because treatment options weren’t was well-established as they are now.
The overall picture here is not that the United States is doing particularly well. Yes, we are seeing fewer confirmed patients dying at the moment than in other places. But on every other metric — total cases, recent growth in cases, population-adjusted cases and deaths — we’re faring worse than nearly every other country.
Hence the public concern. Hence Trump’s efforts to insist that the opposite is true.