Looking globally at the most recent COVID-19 death rates per 100,000 population in countries with available data, it becomes apparent that some Catholic countries have been hit harder than others. As of yesterday, 17 countries had more than 30 deaths per 100,000 people. More than three in four of these countries have Catholic majority populations (as measured by the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae and Pew Research Center estimates).
The only countries that are not majority Catholic in the 17 hardest hit are the United States (47.93 deaths per 100,000), the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the Netherlands. The latter two countries have not embraced masks and lockdowns as other countries have. The US and UK have reportedly lagged behind other countries that more quickly adopted tracking and tracing. Many other factors are certainly important.
So what about the cluster of majority Catholic countries with comparatively higher numbers of deaths per 100,000 of their populations? There is one outlier. San Marino, a micro-state surrounded by Italy, has a population of only about 33,785. With 42 deaths its deaths per 100,000 calculates out to 124.32 (the principality of Andorra also has only 77,006 residents). Among the rest of the Catholic countries are states in Europe and Latin America where COVID-19 infections have been among the most widespread.
There is too much to untangle to know why this cluster of Catholic countries has been heavily affected. One would need to control for many other aspects. How old is the population? Are there underlying health conditions like obesity that might factor? Were enough hospitals available and prepared? What are the policies for lock-downs, testing, tracing, and use of masks? How well are people cooperating with these policies?
In the tradition of Max Weber or Émile Durkheim one might hypothesize that some aspect(s) of faith may be involved as well. While I really doubt this, it is the case that Catholic Masses involve a lot of interaction between parishioners and the distribution of Communion involves others touching something people consume (attending large religious services is considered a high risk environment). At the same time, these factors would be present in many non-Catholic religious gatherings. Did something about Catholic culture and the response to the sick or people in need factor in? We just don't know enough to even really generate good hypotheses yet.
It is also far too early to dive deeply into these questions. The pandemic is ongoing and it could just be a coincidence in how the virus has spread around the globe that deaths per 100,000 of a country's population are higher in some Catholic countries than many others. Once sufficient time has passed and we have a better understanding of how the pandemic spread and ended we can control for many of the factors discussed above to more closely examine the impact on majority Catholic countries. Note that nearly three fourths of majority Catholic countries are not in the cluster with more than 30 deaths per 100,000.
Another way to look at the impact is also to analyze case fatality rates, or the percentage of confirmed cases that result in death. However, this is tricky because there are too many differences between countries in testing for good comparable data on confirmed cases to be reliable. Also with so many asymptomatic cases the actual "fatality rate" (this would be measured by the infection fatality ratio, or the proportion of deaths among all infected individuals) is difficult to establish. However, in the data that are available, some of the highest case fatality rates are in majority Catholic countries. These include: Italy (14.1% confirmed cases resulting in fatality), Belgium (13.9%), France (13.3%), Hungary (13.1%), Mexico (10.9%), and Spain (9.3%). The only other countries with similar or higher rates are: Yemen (28.8%), the United Kingdom (15.1%), and the Netherlands (10.9%). The confirmed case fatality rate in the United States is currently 3.3%. The best estimate for the infection fatality ratio in the United States is 0.65%.
While COVID-19 is something that one might say should be left to doctors and virologists, without an effective vaccine or therapeutic treatment, social scientists become important. The virus is easily transmissible when people are involved in behaviors that bring them into contact with many others indoors. Creating new ways to work, vote, learn, and just live with this reality will also involve the work of economists, political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists. Here at CARA we continue to research how the pandemic is affecting the Catholic Church and how it can best provide what people need to continue to worship and live out their faith.