What to make of the Covid-19 deaths?

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Published: July 21, 2020 5:50 AM

Deaths per case is 0.05 for the US, 0.025 for India, 0.04 for Brazil, while it stands at 0.15 for the UK, 0.14 for Italy and 0.045 for Germany

But, as of July 20, 27,497 had died of Covid-19 in India and 11,18,042 had been infected.But, as of July 20, 27,497 had died of Covid-19 in India and 11,18,042 had been infected.

It was Stalin who said something to the effect that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths a statistic. Twenty brave soldiers died on the border with China, and the entire nation was moved to acknowledge their sacrifice. Quite rightly so. But, as of July 20, 27,497 had died of Covid-19 in India and 11,18,042 had been infected. Even in per million terms, India has gone up from 1 to 18 over the last three months. It is not yet the end of the story.

Even so, India is low in per million terms compared to Western European countries. UK has 664 deaths per million, Belgium had 844, Spain 608 and Italy 579. The US has a high number of deaths (136,000) against 3,334,783 infections, but ‘only’ 408 deaths per million. Sweden was praised for not enforcing a lockdown but even it has 549 per million deaths. Only Germany has achieved an astonishingly low number of 103 per million.

Should we then value total deaths or deaths per capita? Are we saying deaths do not matter when there are plenty of other people alive? Is a life worth less if it occurs in a populous country than in a sparsely populated one? Can, or rather should, India dismiss 24,000 lives as a small price to pay? And paid by whom? For what?

These are not questions facing just India. Everywhere around the globe, SARS CoV-2 has disrupted the economy, upset family and social life and cost lives. The topic will not go away because, for most people under 70 years of age, this is the biggest life-changing event. It is also the biggest economic shock the world has suffered, which had no underlying economic cause. To measure its impact is a challenge. As yet, all the evidence is not in. We do not know whether further economic damage will occur or what shape the recovery will be, or whether a second wave may come.

Still, a few questions can be asked and answered. Let me take two numbers across countries to illustrate a point. The two easily available are the number of cases cumulative to date (ctd), and the number of deaths (ctd). (These are published daily in The Times of London). The ratio of cases to population is an indicator of incidence. The ratio of deaths to cases is a measure of the (in)ability of the health care system to help the infected.

I have quickly calculated these measures for six countries: the US, India, UK, Italy, Brazil and Germany. The surprise is that the more populated nations have a better ratio in terms of mortality per case than the lesser populated. Thus, deaths per case is 0.05 for the US, 0.025 for India, 0.04 for Brazil, the three countries which together account for 245,000 deaths, or almost 40% of the global total, and 6 million cases, almost half the global total. For the three European countries, the deaths per case numbers are 0.15 for the UK, 0.14 for Italy and 0.045 for Germany.

An obvious and well-known conclusion is that Germany did very well compared to other European nations. But the surprise is that the more populous nations had lower mortality per case than the less populated ones! Germany could boast that its numbers are as good as America’s! The three more populous countries have lower deaths per cases, just a third of the (non-German) European level in the US and Brazil, and India, at one-sixth, comes out best.

This is, for me at least, a very counter-intuitive result. I did not expect it when I began writing this article. It throws up a challenge. Why are populous countries witnessing fewer deaths per case than the smaller population ones? Is it that herd immunity is easier to achieve in large populations? Is density-population per square mile the problem, so densely-populated European countries have higher mortality than countries with a lot of area? India is much more dense than Brazil or the US. Does having a large rural population help since the air is cleaner unlike in metros? Or, younger population, as India has?

If we had the age distribution of those who died, we can calculate the welfare loss due to ‘premature’ death. Thirty years ago, I had proposed Potential Life Time (PLT) as a welfare measure. This was the age-dependent life expectancy minus the actual age, i.e., remaining time to live. Since elderly have suffered greater mortality than younger people (the opposite would be the case in a war), the welfare loss of Covid would be relatively less. Is that any kind of consolation?
I leave you all to work it out.

The author is Eminent economist and Labour peer

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