When Donald Trump tweeted this week that the United States had performed more coronavirus tests than any other country, the media were upset.
Trump being Trump, he’d also said the United States had done more tests in eight days than South Korea had done in eight weeks. PolitiFact calculated the United States had done 17,582 fewer tests than South Korea during that time period. LiveScience said the United States had done 43,790 fewer tests than South Korea during that time period.
Their own disparity notwithstanding, other media outlets pointed out merely that South Korea is a much smaller country than the United States. That meant they had done more tests per capita than the United States had.
“Trump overlooks a huge piece of context,” a USA Today fact check said. CNN went with “Fact Check: US has done more coronavirus tests than South Korea, but not per person.” MSNBC ran a segment with a graph asserting that “The U.S. Trails Other Countries In Number Of Other Coronavirus Tests Conducted Per Million People.”
The segment is utterly wild, incidentally. You can watch it here, but while Mika Brzezinski moans and grunts in agreement, Joe Scarborough accuses the president of “lying” and says you have to adjust for population because of “science.” As if speaking to Trump, he says, “This is science. I don’t know … maybe you didn’t take … science at whatever school your daddy got you into. I don’t know. But this is just science.”
While the media have been doing a demonstrably bad job covering the coronavirus and the administration — and have the sinking poll numbers to prove it — this is a good point. Numbers should be placed in context. Comparing countries of different size by aggregate numbers isn’t particularly helpful.
Yet that’s what happens all the time. For example, just a couple of hours after Scarborough’s “science” rant, his colleague Chuck Todd began his show by comparing the United States’s coronavirus cases with Italy’s, even though the United States has a much larger population, and the number of cases has something to do with the number of tests being conducted, and the United States has conducted more tests than any other country has:
CNN, which just days ago praised the need for per capita comparisons, tweeted this last night:
Italy is much smaller than the United States, China is much bigger.
Speaking of China and their reported cases, there is also the issue of the quality of China’s reporting. China claims that it arrested the spread of the virus overnight a few weeks ago. It skyrocketed up to 80,000 cases and then just stopped spreading in China and began spreading everywhere else in the world.
Even with their draconian measures of welding people into their apartments, forbidding travel, electronic surveillance of the affected, and other measures, these numbers are impossible to believe. As Jeryl Bier points out, the last paragraph of a New York Times article is reported credulously when it shouldn’t be: “China’s National Health Commission said earlier on Thursday that all 67 new coronavirus cases officially reported across the country on Wednesday were people who had been infected overseas, as were all 47 reported the previous day.”
As the reported cases in the United States surpassed the reported cases in China — not difficult to do given China’s very low quality of reporting and the fact that the United States is doing more testing than any other country — media were sure to trumpet the numbers:
Yet many in the media don’t just believe them but enthusiastically relish the claim that the United States has more people infected with the coronavirus than China does. Joe “Science Means You Have To Always Do Per Capita Comparisons” Scarborough weighed in:
Many media figures gave Chinese propagandists a run for their money. Here, frequent CNN guest Julia Ioffe said, of a country that is full of public health officials and doctors working valiantly to tackle a global epidemic, that it is a “s—hole” country.
Julia, you might recall, has had a rough couple of years, including tweeting her speculative fantasies about Trump involving incest, falling hard for debunked Russia collusion hoaxes, and being pretty sure she’d figured out an elaborate Russian plot regarding Hunter Biden’s indiscretions.
Ioffe’s fellow Russia collusion hoax promoter Benjamin Wittes was similarly excited by the increase in recorded cases of the deadly virus among his fellow Americans:
Again, sounding like Communist Chinese propagandists, media outlet The Verge renamed the Wuhan Virus the American Virus on account of U.S. testing and results:
Nobody in the media has explained why they accept the Communist Chinese government’s reported numbers despite their track record. As for whether to report numbers that are or are not controlled for population, even that metric can be lacking.
For instance, while Washington state had the earlier significant outbreak of the novel Chinese Coronavirus, New York is experiencing much worse spread. Further, in the United States of America, each state has the right to respond differently to the outbreak. It is more worthwhile to compare by city.
Not everyone was bad on this point. The Washington Examiner’s Phil Klein put many of the global numbers in context for his article, “US does not have close to the most coronavirus cases when adjusted for population.” Also, credit to Jim Geraghty for his ongoing skepticism of Communist Chinese propaganda.
To compare country statistics by population, you can go to this page at Real Clear Politics.