The coronavirus pandemic is raising more questions than answers as the virus spreads around the globe. One perplexing question is: Why does South Korea have fewer deaths than Italy?

Sun Tzu (544 BCE – 496 BCE), a Chinese general, military strategist, writer, and philosopher advised, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles….”. At this point, do we really know who the enemy is? Probably not completely, but we are learning.

In war, the “unknown enemy” uses proven tactics with new weapons that will overwhelm an opponent until they surrender, perish or come up with countermeasures. The bad news is that the virus will not accept surrender, the good news is that when it runs short of people to infect it will go away, at least temporarily. Countermeasures based on experience with previous enemies will first be tried and if they fail, we move on and try another.

Two countermeasures so far have been to test people for infection as early as possible and then subject them to quarantine for at least 2 weeks.

In South Korea, the rate of testing is relatively high at about 3,700 tests per one million people. Italy’s rate of testing is less than 850 per million. But this cannot explain why Italy’s death count is so high at 7.7% compared to South Korea’s 0.9%.

The age factor is another issue where statistics could lead the way to improved countermeasures. The percentage of people over the age of 60 in Italy is about 30%, according to a United Nations study in 2015. Less than 20% of South Korea’s population are sexagenarians and older.

In Italy, 90% of the deaths were of people age 70 or older. The age breakdown of South Korea’s 45 deaths is not available, but it defies logic that only 20% of the diagnosed cases in South Korea are to people 60 years and older with people in their 20s making up almost 30% of confirmed cases. The only likely explanation is that the cases to younger people in South Korea are mild and the less severe cases in Italy were not detected.

Another statistical oddity with South Korea is the gender factor. The global breakdown of confirmed cases is about 50-50 as would be expected. South Korea, however, is reporting that 62% of cases are females. In China, where the virus may be on the wane, the death rate is 4.7% for men and only 2.8% for women.

Statistics show that smokers have a lower survival rate with COVID-19 and in South Korea, 50% of men smoke compared to only 5% of women. In Italy, the smoking rate is 28% for men and 24% for women.

Mountains of statistics properly analyzed may provide good information, but the most effective countermeasure will be the development of a vaccine. Until then, proper handwashing and the practice of “social distancing” are the best defense against an enemy we are still learning to know.