Commentary

Halsey Frank: Pandemic data, dark and dawn

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Last Thursday, my wife and I were scheduled to fly to D.C. for a friend’s daughter’s wedding. Wednesday around midnight, we got an email informing us that our flight had been canceled and we had been rebooked on one Friday afternoon. We were not alone. Ours was one of 2,129 flights cancelled that day. It has been happening all over the country and the world.

While bad weather may explain some cancellations, it wasn’t raining everywhere. The primary explanation is that people stopped traveling in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Airlines responded by laying off workers and idling equipment notwithstanding having received billions in pandemic relief. Now that people are beginning to travel again, airlines don’t have the capacity to accommodate them. The problem gets worse toward the end of the month when the remaining pilots approach their permitted limits on flying time.

It is just the latest, visible, and predictable cost of the mitigation measures taken in response to the virus. Those costs are belatedly being acknowledged in other sectors as well.

Prices at the gas pump are at an all-time high for similar reasons of reduced production and increasing demand. The prices of everything are higher everywhere because we have been producing less while pumping relief money into the economy.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment and employment rates have mostly rebounded from their extremes in May of 2020. The BLS counts the number of people who want a job but can’t find one at 5.7 million, up from 5 million in February of 2020. It counts those have not looked for work in the past 4 weeks at 1.5 million. But those numbers don’t comport with anecdotal experience.

At a time when more seemingly able-bodied people than ever are panhandling on corners, contractors can’t find labor and have to turn away jobs. Small business and restaurant owners can’t find workers and have to reduce their hours of operation. Economist Nicholas Bloom estimates the number of missing workers at more like 3.5 million.

Students are stressed and teachers burned out. Drug deaths are soaring. Worldwide, productivity as measured by Gross Domestic Product decreased. Meanwhile, researchers at Our World In Data, analyzed excess mortality during the pandemic.

Excess mortality is the number of deaths from all causes above what was expected. It is calculated by applying regression analysis to historical deaths data for the five years preceding the pandemic to project the number of deaths expected absent the pandemic. The difference is the excess death rate. It can be calculated as a raw number or as a percentage. The percentage is more useful when comparing rates among countries with large differences in population size.

While there are imperfections in the excess death rate such as differences in countries’ capacity to register deaths, delays in reporting, and differences in terminology, the metric has advantages, including it largely eliminates the effects of politics on the classification of cause of death as COVID-related.

Our World Data’s online report includes an interactive table that allows the user to plot excess mortality by selected country over time. I used it to plot 16 countries including the United States to see how their excess death rates during the pandemic compared (Argentina, Australia, Canada, Cuba, Egypt, England and Wales, Greenland, Israel, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Singapore, and South Korea).

In addition to three of our neighbors, I chose countries with a range of natural barriers to viruses (island nations and landlocked nations), forms of economy and government (from communist, socialist, and authoritarian to capitalist, free market and democratic), diversity of population (from homogenous to diverse), health systems (predominantly private sector to predominantly public sector), and whose response to the pandemic (extent of mitigation, level of vaccination) varied.

Notably, disappointingly, but not surprisingly, China’s data was not reported. There was also a lack of data with respect to India, Pakistan, much of the Arab world and most African nations.

It appears that the high side outliers in terms of percentage excess death rate were Cuba, Egypt, Mexico, and Russia. They also had the oscillations in rate of greatest magnitude. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Norway had cycles of low magnitude. Japan had the flattest curve.

Even those countries that did better experienced significant spikes: South Korea (86%), Singapore (48%), New Zealand (32%), Canada (32%), Norway (27%), and Japan (19%).

Curiously, Greenland’s percent excess death rate seemed to bottom out around the same times that countries like Cuba, Mexico, and South Africa hit peaks.

For most of the pandemic, most of the nations I chose seemed to stay within a band the top of which was around +25% increased percent death. That band seemed to start to scatter this spring when people and governments began to relax their mitigation measures.

The United States’ curve looks like a roller coaster and seemed slightly above average. It spiked in April 2020, January 2021, September 2021 and January 2022. Vaccination began in December of 2020 and reached 70% in July of 2021, yet both milestones were followed by peaks in percent excess death rate.

Meanwhile, the virus continues to do what viruses do: mutate.

Of the 16 countries I focused on, Russia had the highest cumulative number of raw excess deaths during the pandemic: 1.21 million. The United States was next highest with 1.11 million. Mexico third with 663,318.

As of June 2022, Russia’s cumulative rate per million people was 8,345 while Mexico’s was 5,092. (In addition, countries with the worst cumulative rates were Bulgaria: 9,698; Serbia: 8,497; North Macedonia: 7,746; and Peru: 6,951.) The US rate was 3,319. Cuba’s was 4,740, Canada’s was 416, Norway’s was 461, Australia’s was 188, and Japan’s was 75. The rates in New Zealand, Greenland, and Taiwan were actually negative over the course of the pandemic (-340, -1,457 and -68 respectively).

The Economist ranked the economic performance during the pandemic of 23 rich countries according to five measures. Denmark ranked first with GDP growth of 2.1 %, household income increase of 3.4%, stock index price increase of 57.3%, investment increase of 12.1% and debt to GDP ratio increase of 3.5%. Spain ranked 23rd. We ranked 9th. Canada was 10th, Japan was 21st and Norway was 4th.

It will be interesting to see what researchers can tease out of the data to try to explain the differences in countries’ policies, practices, numbers, and rates.

We made it to the wedding. It was a joyous occasion. The young couple obviously adore each other, were filled with optimism and exuberance, and supported by family and friends. The bride is pursuing a master’s degree in epidemiology and biostatistics. The groom is in medical school. They gave me cause for optimism.

About Halsey Frank

Halsey Frank was born and raised in and around New York City and nearby Englewood, NJ. He graduated from the Dwight Englewood School, Wesleyan University and the Boston University School of Law. After law school, Halsey worked for the Department of Justice for 34 years, first as a civil litigator and later as a criminal prosecutor and civil attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. In 1999, Halsey moved to Maine where he worked as a civil attorney and criminal prosecutor in the U.S Attorney’s Office until 2017, when he was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to be Maine’s U.S. Attorney, the chief federal law enforcement officer for the District of Maine. Halsey retired from the Department of Justice in February 2021. Prior to becoming a U.S. Attorney, Halsey was active in local affairs, including the Portland Republican City Committee, the Friends of Portland Parks, the Friends of the Portland Public Library and the Maine Leadership Institute. He previously authored a column entitled “Short Relief” that appeared in The Forecaster regional newspaper. His views are his own.

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