ONE factor explains most of the differences in Covid19 deaths across countries

As an economist I am not happy about going into having strong views on the causes of why people die from Covid19, but at least I can have a look at correlations.

It has been very clear for some time that very few people younger than 50 years old die from Covid19.

In fact the average of people dying with Covid19 have been around 80 years in most countries and men are more likely to die than women.

These simple facts made me think – how much of this can explain the different mortality rates we observe across countries?

Why has so many people died in Italy and Spain, while mortality rates have been much lower in for example Scandinavia? Similarly why are mortality rates so low in most developing countries?

Can the age composition explain this? The graph below give us the answer.

Covid19 deaths POP

In the graph I have plotted the number of deads with Covid19 per 1 million population versus the share of the male population older than 80 years (%).

The data was collected on Friday April 17 2020 and I have only looked at countries with at least 100 deaths from Covid19 and excluded very small countries like Andorra.

As we see there is a very strong correlation between the two and it is certainly strong enough for me to argue that the absolut most important variable determining whether or not a country will be hard hit or not by the Covid19 crisis is the the age structure in the country.

Countries with a lot of old men will simply suffer a lot bigger blow than countries with younger populations.

It should of course be noted that I here compare countries, which are in different phases of the Covid19 crisis.

Correcting for that might make the “model” more (or less?) precise and we could of course also add more variables – for example air pollution, which think also is an important factor, but what is notable is that age alone is such an important factor.

From that perspective it also seem amazing to me that countries have introduced more or less draconian curfews and lockdowns around the world basically for everybody rather than focusing on protecting the most fragile parts of the population – the elderly.

In fact, if we look at Sweden which have likely has the most liberal approach to combating the Covid19 we see that Sweden’s mortality rate overall is not much different from other countries and if we put a regression line in the graph then Sweden would be more or less smack on that regression line.

Two nations to worry about – Greece and Japan

When looking at the graph it is very clear that two countries are clear outlier – Greece and Japan. Both countries have a quite high share of males older than 80 years (both above 6% – and higher than in Italy).

However, unlike Italy or Spain both Greece and Japan so far have avoided a large number of deaths. The question is why?

I don’t have a clear cut answer, but the Greek government early on put the entire nation on a very strict curfew – essentially locking up the Greek population in their own home.

The Japanese approach has been very different, but at least so far a major Covid19 outbreak have been avoided.

The question is, however, this will remain the case?

It is pretty clear that sooner or later Greek government will have to open up society and at that point there obviously is a risk of a Covid19-Tsunami hitting the country. Greece in that sense seems stuck between a rock and a hard place. Either the country goes bankrupt or the number of Covid19 death will likely increase sharply.

Japan has had a much less draconian approach than Greece or Spain and Italy for that matter and despite of that Japan has been able to avoid the Covid19 Tsunami. So maybe Japan’s approach should be copied by other countries – or maybe Japan so far has just been lucky. I don’t the answer to this.

The purpose of this post is to highlight the very clear relationship between share of the male population older than 80 years and the mortality across countries, but I must say that developments over the past week or so in terms of people being infected with Covid19 in Japan and the number of deaths and my fear clearly is that Japan could catch up with the “pattern” in the rest of the world. I certainly hope that that will not happen.

Leave a comment


  1. blakegschmidt

     /  April 20, 2020

    Great job! Now add obesity.

  2. Hoskuldur H Dungal

     /  April 20, 2020

    20APR20. As can be seen in USA, the mortality numbers of coloured people are MUCH HIGHER than those with light skin. The main reason: Coloured people have for decades had about 50% less Vitamin D than light coloured skinned. Dark skin is natures way sun protection, and need to spend up to 6 times longer ti get the same amount of Vitamin D. So, what about Japan? Don’t they have a long tradition to eat Sushi or seafood, which normally contains a lot of Vitamin D? Could this be a part of the equation?

  3. Interesting! I wonder whether the male / female difference is down to gender difference in prevalence of smoking, or something else?

  4. Odd for Greece and Japan to be so good if smoking major factor though…

    If you unlog the scale (why do we think a logged scale makes sense – perhaps more over 80s means even more proportionally over 85s?) Portugal and Germany clearly stand out too.

  5. Bettadapura Sharma

     /  April 20, 2020
  6. reader

     /  April 21, 2020

    Only Japan mandates BCG vaccination in G7, and only Greece in Western European countries. In addition, the BCG vaccination strain used in Japan is the old type (Tokyo-172 strain).

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