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Trump’s new favorite talking point about US coronavirus cases is highly misleading

Trump wants you to believe the US coronavirus outbreak is similar to Germany’s and South Korea’s. Don’t buy it.

A reporter’s hand wearing a plastic glove is raised at a press briefing at the White House. President Trump points to a reporter from behind the podium.
Trump during a White House news briefing on Tuesday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Donald Trump wants the public to believe that countries like Germany, Japan, and Australia are doing as poorly as the United States when it comes to the coronavirus. His continued insistence that this is the case misrepresents the facts: In reality, the outbreaks here and in those countries are worlds apart in scale.

During his press briefing on Wednesday, Trump said, “Now you look at the explosion of countries’ ties that you would’ve said did such a good job ... when you look at the job we’ve done compared to others, we’ve done a great job.”

He echoed that same thing during Wednesday’s briefing when he noted that “the virus continues to increase in nations across the globe” — a statement that’s technically true but highly misleading.

“Last week, France and Germany both recorded their highest daily number of cases in three months,” Trump continued. “Not that I want to bring that up, but might as well explain it to the media. The seven-day case average for Germany has increased by 62 percent since last week, unfortunately. And that is truly unfortunate. It’s increased by 82 percent in France.”

That might sound bad in a vacuum. But the crucial context Trump omitted is that new coronavirus cases in Germany topped out at 1,147 on August 7. Meanwhile, on Tuesday alone, the US reported 54,443 new cases — or just under 50 times more than Germany at its recent peak.

It is true that the US has far more people than Germany and could be expected to have a larger caseload. But even adjusted for population, it’s an apples-and-oranges comparison, as depicted by this graph posted to Twitter by Daniel Dale of CNN that shows the US has about six times as many cases per 1 million people as Germany:

Although just a few minutes of research reveals the problem with this particular talking point, Trump has invoked it on a near-daily basis in recent weeks.

During his briefing on Monday, for instance, Trump noted that “in recent days, cases have rapidly increased in Japan and Australia.” But what he didn’t say is that the number of new cases in the US on Sunday was more than 20 times the number of new cases in Japan and Australia combined.

While it’s true that Japan is experiencing a relative increase in new cases, the implication that Japan’s surge is somehow comparable with the US’s is not.

As of Sunday, Japan averaged 1,381 new cases over the seven preceding days — a number that pales in comparison with the 67,317 averaged by the US over the same time frame. And as Philip Bump of the Washington Post detailed, that difference is still glaring even when adjusted for population:

Of course, the United States is much larger than Australia or Japan. If we adjust for population, though, the comparison doesn’t get much better. Australia’s peak was 22 cases per million residents and Japan’s was 11. The United States’ new high saw 204 new cases for every million residents late last month.

That’s not to say there aren’t countries Trump could legitimately compare the US to. It’s just that they are often ones without the sort of public health infrastructure the US aspires to have, and include countries that, like the US, have been criticized for their Covid-19 response.

As this graph shows, in terms of new cases, the US these days has an outbreak comparable to those in places like Peru, Brazil, South Africa, and Iraq — but not the European and East Asian countries Trump regularly invokes.

An animated chart of coronavirus cases around the world. 91-DIVOC

Testing has nothing to do with the US’s case count

Trump also often falsely insists that the only reason the US has so many new cases is because it does so much testing. But even with respect to Covid-19 deaths adjusted for population, the US is among the hardest-hit countries in the world — and countries like Italy and Spain that once had higher death rates have done a much better job getting the virus under control than we have.

As my colleague German Lopez explained:

The US is also in the top 10 countries for Covid-19 deaths after adjusting for population, with more than 490 deaths per million people. In this sense, America remains comparable to some of its developed peers; Belgium, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and Sweden have all suffered higher death rates, and France is only a bit behind. But others have done much better, with Germany and Denmark reporting less than a fourth the death rate of the US, and Japan and South Korea reporting between 1 and 2 percent of the death rate of the US.

With deaths in the US totaling more than 1,000 a day in late July and August, America’s rank on this metric could get even worse in the coming weeks.

Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, told me that “compared to other countries that have acted quickly, tested prodigiously, contact-traced aggressively, recognized aerosol risk readily, encouraged/mandated masking up prevalently, closed down quickly, and altogether used public health science to guide response — the US has done poorly or outright failed in most of these key measures when it mattered most versus other countries.

“And when these public health measures were done often matters as much if not more —being early, aggressive on containment is key,” he added. “And in all those fronts, Trump and [Vice President Mike] Pence have mostly failed.”

Germany, South Korea, and Japan were willing to do what the US has not

As Feigl-Ding alluded to, countries like South Korea and Germany took strong measures to get the virus under control during the early days of the pandemic, such as ramping up robust testing systems and quickly implementing social distancing regulations. Trump, by contrast, spent those crucial days trying to wish away the virus, and throughout the pandemic has been more concerned with the economic fallout of stay-at-home orders and mandated business closures than he has with controlling the public health crisis created by Covid-19.

So while other countries reopen schools and allow fans back to sporting events, the US finds itself in a situation where Florida has had more Covid-19 deaths in the past 12 days than Japan and South Korea have had combined since the pandemic began.

That reality doesn’t reflect positively on Trump’s response to a pandemic that has killed more than 165,000 Americans and is shaping up to be the defining issue in this November’s election. It also undercuts his administration’s push to get schools to reopen for in-person learning.

But instead of developing and implementing a plan to get US Covid-19 cases under control, Trump — as he is wont to do — has opted for trying to turn reality on its head.

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