America has more coronavirus deaths than other countries. What can we learn? | Editorial
Some countries had few or no deaths from coronavirus.
This chart compares cases in the U.S. and the EU.
This chart compares cases in the U.S. and the EU. [ Provided ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published July 10, 2020

Coronavirus deaths in the United States recently climbed above 133,000, at the same time that other countries have found ways to keep the virus in check. In a country that prides itself on being the best, it seems prudent to examine the reasons why.

Below you will find some countries that have recorded staggeringly few deaths. Sure, not every country tracks coronavirus cases the same way as the United States. But there are some things to learn from these countries, many of which have recorded coronavirus deaths in the single digits.

In Mongolia — population 3.17 million — no one had died from coronavirus as of July 9, according to the World Health Organization. That’s because Mongolia acted early and spent a lot of time preparing for the virus, particularly stockpiling personal protective equipment. The hard work paid off. In America, we fought over who was responsible for stockpiling equipment — the states or the federal government.

Iceland imposed aggressive COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. Anyone returning from international travel was quarantined. But there was also never any government-instituted lockdown for the nation of roughly 360,000 people. The death rate is one of the lowest in the world.

To be fair, Iceland is a small country without any close neighbors, and Mongolia was social distancing before it was cool, with a population density of roughly five people per square mile. The U.S. comes in at about 93 people per square mile.

But some much larger — and less wealthy — countries have avoided the worrisome death tolls, too. As of July 9, Vietnam had recorded zero deaths from coronavirus in a population of 96 million, according to the World Health Organization. That’s not a typo. Plus, Vietnam shares a border with China, where the virus appears to have originated.

Coronavirus deaths can be counted in many ways. We’ve even seen some of that in Florida, where medical examiners released higher death counts than the state’s official figures. Has someone in Vietnam died from the virus without it being recorded? Probably, but there is a stark difference between zero and more than 133,000. Vietnam also has a much higher population density than the United States, making it a more fertile environment for the virus to spread.

What helped Vietnam? Acting early and clamping down. They stopped all domestic and international flights by the end of March, locked down the country on April 1 and established quarantine camps. Vietnam’s central Communist government also has a more authoritarian style than most Americans would tolerate. That allowed Vietnamese leaders to put more severe measures in place with less discussion.

Taiwan reported its first local coronavirus case in two months on June 24. The country has a comparable population size to the Sunshine State, which has experienced more than 232,700 cases since the epidemic began. Florida has also seen more than 4,100 deaths, while Taiwan has recorded only seven. One of the factors that likely aided Taiwan? Citizens listened to their vice president, an epidemiologist who studied at Johns Hopkins. In the United States, too many people ignored public health experts.

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Vietnam and Taiwan have both tackled previous pandemics. They remember SARS and the bird flu. The citizenry was familiar with instructions on how to prevent viruses from spreading. Residents knew to keep their distance from strangers and to wear masks. In the United States, many residents flouted masks instead of wearing them to help protect their fellow citizens.

Greece, a country not known for its political or financial prowess, acted fast by banning non-essential movement only a week after its first COVID-19 death. The country has had 190 deaths from coronavirus so far, according to a world coronavirus tracker. With a population of roughly 10.7 million, Greece recorded a coronavirus death rate of about one in every 56,421 people. In the United States, it’s one in every 2,504.

Too often some city, state and federal leaders in the United States opted for the bare minimum, when other countries — hit earlier by the virus — provided a road map for success. They could have enacted full-scale testing with rapid results from the get-go, but instead they failed to test many people and even now have trouble getting results quickly. They could have used wide-scale antibody testing to get a sense of what percentage of the American population already had COVID-19. Leaders in coronavirus hot spots could have put mandatory mask policies in place sooner. Plus, individuals could have heeded the warnings and taken more personal responsibility. That’s what other countries did, often to great effect.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news