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How Biden and Trump actually compare on coronavirus deaths

The United States and several other countries imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and other African countries after the omicron variant was discovered. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

The United States passed yet another grim coronavirus milestone in November: We have now seen more deaths from the virus in 2021 than we did in all of 2020 — despite the advent of vaccines.

Naturally, this has led to plenty of partisan politicking, with conservatives and Republicans using it to argue that President Biden has failed in his promise to get the virus under control. Some have gone so far as to say this stat proves Biden’s handling of the virus is worse than President Donald Trump’s was.

As with all coronavirus stats, such comparisons can easily be manipulated depending upon when waves occur, etc., and stripped of context. And that context is less damning for Biden vis-a-vis Trump.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board got the ball rolling last week. In an editorial titled, “Biden’s Covid Death Milestone,” it noted the 2021-vs.-2020 comparison.

“It would seem that Mr. Biden has done no better than Donald Trump in defeating covid despite the benefit of vaccines, better therapies and more clinical experience,” argued the editorial, which Trump himself went on to promote.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has echoed the point: “I took [Biden] at his word when he said he was going to get covid under control. Unfortunately, more Americans have died this year than last year under covid.”

Fox News’s Tucker Carlson intoned Monday night, while arguing against Biden’s tenure as president: “More Americans have died from covid in 2021 than died in 2020 before there was a shot.”

And Breitbart said: “The U.S. death toll … under Joe Biden’s administration will soon surpass the death toll recorded during Donald Trump’s administration, and in less time.”

As the Wall Street Journal’s editorial noted, Biden has set himself up for such comparisons. As a candidate in 2020, he commented on what were then 220,000 deaths, saying that “anyone that is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.”

From there, it’s a question of just how many deaths the president is actually responsible for. Too often, criticisms of Trump devolved into suggesting (explicitly or implicitly, as Biden did) that a president could have prevented all those deaths. The worldwide experience with the virus proves otherwise. They also often ignored per capita numbers.

The comparison between 2020 and 2021 is also inapt in that Trump was still president in early 2021, and the effects of choices made before Biden took over (such as Trump not really encouraging people to get vaccinated) lingered into Biden’s early presidency. The biggest wave of the coronavirus in this country, in fact, peaked around the exact time Biden was inaugurated on Jan. 20. Inheriting a trendline that showed 3,000 deaths per day, as Biden did, is a recipe for inflating your numbers.

(To a significant degree, that wave was outside Trump’s control, of course; most places in the world were experiencing the worst wave of the virus at the time.)

Even if we assumed all things were equal, though, the comparison still struggles.

Both presidents presided over about 10 months of the pandemic. The World Health Organization declared that label on March 11, meaning Trump was president for a little more than 10 months of the formally declared pandemic. Biden has now passed a little more than 10 months in office as well.

Thus far, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Biden has presided over about 353,000 deaths in a little over 10 months, compared to about 425,000 for Trump in his final 10-plus months. So there have still been fewer deaths under Biden than under Trump, in a similar time period.

The best comparison to my mind, though, is not the raw numbers — which depend upon how bad things are, when waves occur, emerging variants, etc. — but how we compare to the rest of the world. Just as the best comparisons for Trump’s numbers worldwide were per capita and relative, so, too, are Biden’s.

What we can say: Under Biden, we have accounted for a significantly smaller share of worldwide deaths than under Trump.

The 425,000 deaths we saw in Trump’s 10-plus months accounted for nearly 20 percent of all worldwide deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Since Biden took over, the world as a whole has seen more deaths in his 10 months (3.07 million) than the preceding 10 months (2.14 million), but the United States has seen fewer. In Biden’s 10-plus months, the United States has accounted for less than 12 percent of worldwide deaths, which is down from 19.9 percent under Trump. That’s a decline of more than 40 percent in our proportion of the worldwide death rate.

Again, no comparisons are perfect. But if you look at how the virus has spread in similar countries between the two 10-month periods, the United States is generally doing better than it was, relatively speaking. Before Jan. 20, Europe accounted for more than 30 percent of coronavirus deaths; after that date, Europe has accounted for 25.2 percent of deaths. That’s a smaller drop — about 16.5 percent — than we have seen in the United States, even as Europe’s continentwide vaccination rate is similar.

Within Europe, you can cherry-pick your comparisons, but let’s focus on a couple of countries. The United Kingdom, with its very high vaccination rates, has gone from 4.4 percent of worldwide deaths pre-Jan. 20 to 1.7 percent afterward — a bigger relative drop than the United States. Germany has gone from 2.3 percent to 1.7 percent, a smaller drop than the United States.

The question from there is how you factor in the vaccines and other variables. We have a superior health system to most countries and widely available vaccines, which should put us in a better position even as the worldwide death rate has increased during Biden’s tenure. But the most pronounced vaccine reluctance comes from those who have little regard for Biden’s public health advice. On the one hand, Biden as president is responsible for persuading Americans to get vaccinated; on the other hand, those people who are very disproportionately accounting for coronavirus deaths right now — the unvaccinated — are in large number those who won’t listen to him.

It’s a tricky question, but the straight Biden-vs.-Trump death comparison isn’t as friendly to Trump’s administration as these oversimplified talking points suggest. Biden hasn’t been able to get the virus as under control as he promised, but almost nobody has. And to say he “has done no better than Donald Trump in defeating covid” based upon the 2021-to-2020 comparison is to vastly oversimplify things.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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