Many of us are tracking the daily coronavirus infection and death rates. You may have noticed that the death rates differ greatly from country to country. Here are some of the main reasons.
In Costa Rica, the number of deaths from coronavirus is relatively low for the number of confirmed infections. The rate is lower than in Panama, where the number of deaths linked to confirmed Covid-19 infections remains extremely high. Currently, there are 17 deaths and 901 infected, while Costa Rica has remained at 2 deaths and the number of infected rising to 295, with data from the Johns Hopkins University.
Rounding out Centra America, El Salvador, which move early in measures to contain the virus reports 34 infected and no deaths, Guatemala reports 34 confirmed cases and one death, in Honduras there is one death and 110 cases reported and then there’s Nicaragua with 2 deaths and only 4 cases.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says various factors can contribute to such discrepancies.
First, there’s the “population pyramid” or distribution of age and gender in a given country. Then there’s the medical or healthcare capacities of each country. And last but not least, the number of people who are tested for coronavirus, because knowing and recording exactly who has been infected will directly influence the validity of any published figures.
In some countries, supplementary tests are carried out on the dead. And that would influence the statistics as well.
That may be explained if, in Italy, fewer younger people, who presented with mild symptoms, were tested. That would influence the death rate, because only the severely ill would be visible.
In Italy, a report in the national newspaper, Corriere della Sera, suggests there may be a high number of unreported cases in the country, both among infections and those people who are dying following an infection.
In South Korea, it’s the exact opposite. Authorities there have tested significantly more people for Covid-19 than other countries. And the estimated death rate in South Korea is extremely low.
The average age of a population can also play a role here. Older people are at high risk of contracting the coronavirus as they often have pre-existing health conditions.
That can make it easier for a virus to overcome a person’s immune system — certainly easier than is with otherwise healthy people, who are often also young. Our immune defenses weaken as we get older, our immune systems become less effective, and that puts us at greater risk of infectious diseases.
But that doesn’t fully explain the significant differences between Costa Rica and Panama and because the population pyramid in both countries is similar. In 2020, the median age in Panama is was 29.7 years and in Costa Rica it was 33.5 years.
Timing of the epidemic
The course of the epidemic could provide a further explanation for the difference in death rates.
In those countries that have been especially hard-hit by the outbreak — such as Italy and Spain — the pandemic appeared earlier.
In Costa Rica, the first case was detected on March 4, in Panama on March 9.
And as it takes time from the first moment of infection to the point at which a severely ill patient dies, the death rate among confirmed cases is likely to rise as we get to the end of the pandemic.
Costa Rica’s Minister of Health Dr. Daniel Salas, said that the country has yet to reach its own peak, and once it does, we could see higher rates of mortality here as well.
The health of a healthcare system
The most important question, however, is how well a country’s healthcare system is prepared for an outbreak, such as the coronavirus, and whether it can succeed in “flattening the curve.” The idea here is to reduce the likelihood of any sudden spikes in the infection and death rates by keeping numbers stable as a virus spreads through a population.
It’s possible, for instance, to reduce the number of deaths of severely ill coronavirus patients with the help of respirators, or ventilator machines. So, it’s important that there are enough hospital beds in intensive care and access to such machines.
If there are too few intensive care beds and ventilators for artificial respiration, it’s likely that those patients who don’t get that care will be at higher risk of dying.