Third Quarter Check-In: COVID and GDP

How have countries around the world fared so far in the COVID-19 pandemic? There are many ways to measure this, but two important measures are the number of deaths from the disease and economic growth.

Over the past few weeks, major economies have started releasing data for GDP in the third quarter of 2020, which gives us the opportunity to “check in” on how everyone is doing.

Here is one chart I created to try to visualize these two measures. For GDP, I calculated how much GDP was “lost” in 2020, compared with maintaining the level from the fourth quarter of 2019 (what we might call the pre-COVID times). For COVID deaths, I use officially coded deaths by each country through Nov. 15 (I know that’s not the end of Q3, but I think it’s better than using Sept. 30, as deaths have a fairly long lag from infections).

One major caution: don’t interpret this chart as one variable causing the other. It’s just a way to visualize the data (notice I didn’t try to fit a line). Also, neither measure is perfect. GDP is always imperfect, and may be especially so during these strange times. Officially coded COVID deaths aren’t perfect, though in most countries measures such as excess deaths indicate these probably understate the real death toll.

You can draw your own conclusions from this data, and also bear in mind that right now many countries in Europe and the US are seeing a major surge in deaths. We don’t know how bad it will be.

Here’s what I observe from the data. The countries that have performed the worst are the major European countries, with the very notable exception of Germany. I won’t attribute this all to policy; let’s call it a mix of policy and bad luck. Germany sits in a rough grouping with many Asian developed countries and Scandinavia (with the notable exception of Sweden, more on this later) among the countries that have weathered the crisis the best (relatively low death rates, though GDP performance varies a lot).

And then we have the United States. Oddly, the country we seem to fit closest with is… Sweden. Death rates similar to most of Western Europe, but GDP losses similar to Germany, Japan, Denmark, and even close to South Korea. (My groupings are a bit imperfect. For example, Japan and South Korea have had much lower death tolls than Germany or Denmark, but I think it is still useful.)

To many observers, this may seem strange. Sweden followed a mostly laissez-faire approach, while most US states imposed restrictions on movement and business that mirrored Western Europe. Some in the US have advocated that the US copy the approach of Sweden, even though Sweden seems to be moving away from that approach in their second wave.

Counterfactuals are hard in the social sciences. They are even harder during a public health crisis. It’s really hard to say what would have happened if the US followed the approach of Sweden, or if Sweden followed the approach of Taiwan. So I’m trying hard not to reach any firm conclusions. To me, it seems safe to say that in the US, public policy has been largely bad and ineffective (fairly harsh restrictions that didn’t do much good in the end), yet the US has (so far) fared better than much of Europe.

All of this could change. But let’s be cautious about declaring victory or defeat at this point.

Coda on Sweden Deaths

Are the officially coded COVID deaths in Sweden an accurate count? One thing we can look to is excess deaths, such as those reported by the Human Mortality Database. What we see is that Swedish COVID deaths do almost perfectly match the excess deaths (the excess over historical averages): around 6,000 deaths more than expected.

Some have suggested that the high COVID deaths for Sweden are overstated because Sweden had lower than normal deaths in recent years, particularly 2019. This has become known as the “dry tinder” theory, for example as stated in a working paper by Klein, Book, and Bjornskov (disclosure: Dan Klein was one of my professors in grad school, and is also the editor of the excellent Econ Journal Watch, where I have been published twice).

But even the Klein et al. paper only claims that “dry tinder” factor can account for 25-50% of the deaths (I have casually looked at the data, and these seems about right to me). Thus, perhaps in the chart above, we can move Sweden down a bit, bringing them closer to the Germany-Asia-Scandinavia group. Still, even with this correction, Sweden has 2.5x the death rate of Denmark (rather than 5x) and 5x the death rate of Finland (rather than 10x, as with officially coded deaths).

As with all things right now, we should reserve judgement until the pandemic is over (Sweden’s second wave looks like it could be pretty bad). The “dry tinder” factor (a term I personally dislike) is worth considering, as we all try to better understand the data on how countries have performed in this crisis.

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