COVID: How Many Deaths Could Have Been Avoided?

Agence Science-Presse (

Two years after the “big confinement,” many are asking a lot of questions about what we could have done better in our response to the virus. Oone of these questions can actually be partially answered through data we’ve already collected: what would have happened if we had reacted sooner?

For example, what would have happened if China had been quicker to alert the world? Recall that the first alert was sent out on December 30th, 2019, on the specialized ProMED-mail (Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases) forum: 27 cases of a “pneumonia” of unknown origin that was killing people in Wuhan, China. On January 8th, Chinese researchers announced that they had found a “new virus.”

The first officially attributed case of Coronavirus was identified on November 17th, 2020. Even if it was impossible at that point to know that the case was caused by a new virus, when, between November 17th and December 30th, could China have sent out an alert if their society had been more open?

The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci asked this question in the New York Times, and couldn’t come up with a clear answer: even if other nations had received the alert in mid-December, there’s no sure way to tell if they would have reacted right away. After all, even after having been warned by the World Health Organization at the end of January with their highest possible alert, most countries waited until March to react.

Some nations reacted almost right away. Starting on December 31st, Taiwan began systematically testing all passengers entering the country from Wuhan. They were looking for symptoms such as fever – they were at that time unaware of all the disease’s symptoms, but assumed that a high temperature would be an easy alarm signal to detect. Masks were immediately rationed, and the military was called upon to ramp up their production.

In January, South Korea started to experiment with large-scale testing – drive-through testing, for example. After a super-spreader event in a church in March, they turned to mass testing.

In the end, Taiwan suffered 853 deaths, the equivalent of 12,000 deaths in the United States. Actual COVID deaths in the U.S. now approach one million.  

There were other early alarm signals. The most analyzed of those was the situation aboard the cruise liner Diamond Princess. Quarantined in the port of Yokohama on February 3rd, 2020, after 10 positive cases were detected, the ship had 712 cases aboard just one week later: one in five people on the boat, and nine Japanese health workers.  This was the first confirmation that the virus was extremely contagious. It was then that experts took the idea of “aerosols” seriously – tiny particles capable of being widely projected and suspended in the air for long periods, especially in a closed space.

And yet, it took months for some countries to accept the aerosol theory and adjust their health measures accordingly – like the requirement to wear masks indoors no matter how close the nearest person might be. Japan emphasized masks and interior ventilation beginning in February 2020; while for weeks North America, Zeynep Tufekci notes, continued to “disinfect their groceries.” In the end, Japan counted 25,000 COVID deaths, the equivalent of 66,000 in the United States.

Officially the number of COVID deaths worldwide is pegged at 6 million. But a systematic analysis by the medical journal The Lancet puts that number at 18 million, given that many nations that don’t have the capacity to keep count of their mortality rate or to analyze causes of death. Similarly, the magazine The Economist’s estimates waver between 12 and 23 million deaths. We will probably never know the exact number of fatalities. But the results in the nations that reacted the quickest give food for thought.  

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