Who’s Succeeding Against the Coronavirus and Why

Eight months after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a global health emergency, countries around the world have seen vastly different results from their efforts to fight the pandemic. The outcomes have been driven by factors both in and out of the control of individual nations, with some common threads emerging:

Preparedness Helps

While countries have adopted a variety of strategies, they basically boil down to finding out who is currently infected (testing and tracing) and minimizing the risk that the virus spreads (isolating, quarantining and taking other preventive measures). Early on, many places that responded most effectively were those that had learned tough lessons from the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which like the new coronavirus originated in China. Taiwan, for example, managed to stamp out locally transmitted coronavirus infections in April by deploying early health screening of visitors, along with thorough testing and contact tracing. It helped that in many Asian nations, widespread use of medical masks became common after the SARS outbreak.

Early testing is paramount

Countries that quickly rolled out testing and tracing in January — including South Korea and Germany — squashed their early waves. Testing enabled policy makers to react quickly to the growing threat and convinced people of the danger at hand. The benefit of that early action appears to be long-lasting. While both countries faced rising cases again at the end of summer, they seem to have driven the virus levels so low in preceding months that they’re so far able to handle the situation calmly. By contrast, the U.S. and U.K. were considered by some experts just a year ago to be the most prepared countries on the planet for a pandemic. Yet each failed to put sufficient testing in place early on, allowing the virus to spread largely unchecked, eroding some people’s faith in health officials and leading to two of the highest rates of Covid deaths per capita in the world.

Geography Counts

Island nations such as Iceland and New Zealand were able to reduce new confirmed cases to low numbers by banning visitors and fully isolating themselves. Geography can also pose challenges. When China began to re-open its economy in April and May, it had to take special precautions to prevent case spillovers along its borders with North Korea and Russia. In Europe, lots of cross-border travel caused many countries’ initial outbreaks and became a big headache for policy makers during the summer vacation season.

Strong-Arm Tactics Work

In a March analysis, political scientist Sofia Fenner concluded that both authoritarian regimes and democracies could achieve good outcomes — the decisive factors were whether nations have significant physical infrastructure, highly reliable civil servants and leaders who responded rapidly and proactively. China raised eyebrows globally when it locked down tens of millions of people in January to stanch the spread of the virus. The effort worked and was soon copied by countries on other continents. When China re-opened, it raised eyebrows again — with measures most countries so far have deemed too intrusive. For example, authorities used data from government departments, phone carriers and the travel history of citizens to assign them a color-coded risk level that determines their freedom of movement. By summer, these measures had been so effective that Wuhan, where the pandemic started, had seen only a handful of cases since May and many people considered the app no longer necessary.

A Softer Touch Can Work, Too

Less-restrictive measures have also succeeded. Japan has suppressed two surges of the virus without mandatory lockdowns. Instead, in a country where social cohesion is high, extensive public awareness campaigns advised citizens to avoid situations most likely to create clusters of cases that are believed to really drive exponential growth: closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings. Because of its successful early testing, Germany experienced a relatively permissive shutdown this spring compared to many of its neighbors, which it combined with a robust contact tracing program. Thanks to some of the world’s toughest privacy laws, the country’s 375 local health authorities couldn’t rely much on digital surveillance for help. Instead, they recruited teams with members ranging from medical students to firefighters, who work via email, telephone and sometimes even fax. Their efforts are considered a key reason that Germany had about a fifth of the number of coronavirus deaths per capita as the U.S. South Korea’s effective response was something of a hybrid: It relied extensively on surveillance, using everything from smartphone tracking to CCTV footage, but without ever imposing a lockdown.

Trust in Government Helps

The credibility of policy makers matters at a time when citizens are flooded with news, scientific research (some of it bad) and often conflicting messages. Countries with lower levels of trust in authorities are especially vulnerable to conspiracy theories that some commentators began calling the “Infodemic.” Distrust of the government in Iran, after it lied to cover up the military’s mistaken downing of a civilian airliner Jan. 8., led citizens to ignore directives not to travel during the Persian New Year, in late March. In the U.S., crowds gathered in state capitals protesting government lockdowns and demanding a reopening of the economy. In Latin America, the two most populous countries, Brazil and Mexico, saw some of the highest death counts after leaders downplayed risks, while in other nations authorities working to contain the virus struggled against historic skepticism toward government measures.

The Reference Shelf

  • Related QuickTakes on understanding the pandemic, how the virus spreads, the quest for better treatments, the race for vaccines, and the different kinds of tests.
  • An analysis by political scientist Sofia Fenner on the blogsite Duck of Minerva concludes that regime type isn’t a major factor in the effectiveness of a country’s Covid response.
  • A commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association argues that leadership and public trust are the single most important indicators of success.
  • Subscribe to a daily update on the virus from Bloomberg’s Prognosis team.

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