For President Donald Trump, 2020 will be defined by his coronavirus response. And in recent weeks, he has sought to deflect the mountains of criticism he has received by pointing to the escalating Covid-19 outbreaks across Europe.
"Our numbers are much better than Europe," the president said in September. He said during the final presidential debate last month that "it's all over the world — you see the spikes in Europe and many other places right now."
In the run-up to his election loss to President-elect Joe Biden, Trump argue it was unfair to blame him for the more than 235,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States because the problem isn't exclusive to the U.S. Rather, he suggested, it was an unavoidable scourge that few, if any, Western countries have dodged.
Looking at numbers from the World Health Organization and others, it might seem reasonable to compare the two regions. The U.S. has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, and it has been breaking its own daily records over the past week. And in the past week, Europe has reported half of the 3.3 million new cases worldwide, a 22 percent increase from the previous week. Deaths in Europe have also increased substantially, by 46 percent in the same period.
However, experts interviewed on both continents challenged Trump's characterization.
"I think that it is unfair to compare the U.S. with Europe and say, 'Oh, but they're doing it badly, as well,'" said William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Although Europe's case numbers are rising faster right now, Hanage said the total numbers of U.S. deaths and cases per capita since the pandemic began are still considerably higher — "and it's basically been continuing to go up and up and up."
The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world's population but almost 20 percent of its recorded coronavirus deaths. It has the 12th worst deaths-per-capita ratio in the world, far higher than those of most other developed countries, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Public trust in government
The caveat is that it's difficult to talk about Europe as a whole when the European Union and the recently departed United Kingdom comprise 28 countries, each with its own health care system, laws and social norms. Similarly, the U.S. response has differed greatly across the 50 states.
But taking each as a whole, Trump is correct that the E.U.'s case numbers have been skyrocketing more quickly than the U.S.'s in recent weeks. Outbreaks in the Czech Republic and Belgium are among the fastest-growing in the world, with outbreaks in the U.K., France, Spain and Italy also growing faster than the U.S. average, according to the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, there are others — such as Germany, Finland and Denmark in Europe, not to mention much of Asia and Oceania — that, for the moment, at least, are coping far better than the U.S.
"These places in Europe are showing that strong leadership can make the difficult decisions that it takes to ultimately save lives," said Nicola Stonehouse, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Leeds in England.
She said that when Trump compares the U.S. to Europe, he is merely showing that his country belongs alongside the continent's fellow strugglers — rather than its relative success stories.
In Finland and Norway — among the best performers — officials and experts say high levels of public trust in government mean people have generally followed public health guidelines designed to keep cases low.
The reputation of Germany, once seen as a shining example internationally, has faded somewhat in recent weeks, with Chancellor Angela Merkel reintroducing some restrictions as infections have risen. The country has also been hit with anti-lockdown demonstrations, as were Spain, Italy and the U.K.
But Germany's total case and death numbers are still relatively low compared to those of the U.S. and its sickly neighbors — it's just that Merkel is acting sooner than elsewhere to nip the uptick in the bud.
Even seen as a whole, Europe still has far fewer cumulative cases and deaths across the course of the pandemic per capita than the U.S., according to the European CDC.
Most European countries imposed harsh lockdowns during the early days of the pandemic, bringing the high spikes of case and death numbers in March and April to relatively low levels in summer.
It was only then, with the weather warm and the virus seemingly at bay, that those European governments lifted the restrictions to defibrillate their sickly economies.
That's what appears to have caused the current surge, said Hajo Zeeb, a professor at the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology in Germany.
"People were somewhat more relaxed," he said. "People have been really looking forward to some liberties and taking things easier, but unfortunately the virus doesn't seem to accept that."
Even though many epidemiologists warn of a winter surge, all major European powers tried to come out of lockdown into what they hoped would be a time of delicate balance: keep wearing masks and socially distancing while trying to reopen their economies.
We'll see how successful Europe is in their shutdown.
But they did so without having established the cultural and structural measures to cope with the inevitable increase in people mixing together, many experts say.
Germany and Finland are rare examples of countries that have managed to build successful "test, trace and isolate" systems that are believed to be crucial in managing infections. But in Germany, the level of social mixing once restrictions were relaxed appears to have been too much for the system to bear, Zeeb said.
The story has been different in Finland. Not only have Finns followed the rules, but a survey by the European Parliament found that almost a quarter also said lockdown had improved their lives. Its test-and-trace system has largely held up.
Now European countries like the U.K., France and Spain are reintroducing lockdown measures.
In France, people can leave their homes only to get food, medicine or exercise, and they must carry a written note justifying their trips. And a nationwide curfew in Spain means everyone must stay inside from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. The main difference from March is that many countries will keep schools open.
"We'll see how successful Europe is in their shutdown," said Dr. Myron Cohen, director of the University of North Carolina Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases. He also said Covid-19 deaths aren't the only thing to be considered with such tactics, given that the "economic consequences are devastating, unequivocally."
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The other big difference between the U.S. and Europe is that, while Trump has repeatedly peddled coronavirus misinformation and sought to downplay the outbreak, European governments have rarely deployed the same rhetoric.
European failures, according to critics, have more often owed to failed policies that were deployed in good faith, such as Madrid's relaxing restrictions in bars and restaurants without first building a competent test-and-trace program. Others have blamed confusing messaging, such as the U.K.'s hodgepodge of regional measures, which at times appeared to befuddle even government officials.
Europe's coronavirus critics usually point to bureaucratic incompetence, rather than deliberate neglect. Belgium, for example, was unable to form a federal government for 592 days, a roiling administrative and political crisis that experts say has contributed to its being one of the world's worst Covid-19 hot spots.
Again, Germany is widely seen as a good example. Merkel has leaned on her credentials as a former research scientist not only to win support for her virus response but also to boost her previously flagging popularity at home and abroad.
She "explained the concept of the reproductive number very early on and explained that, as it gets higher and higher and higher, it shortens the amount of time before the health care services are overwhelmed," said Hanage, of Harvard. "There have been protests, yeah, but Germany has managed to keep a much more unified response."