LOS ANGELES — One year into the pandemic, there have been over 106 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide. The virus, which has raged and spread uncontrollably throughout the world, has claimed the lives of over 2.6 million people.
The highly infectious nature of COVID-19, and the lack of effective action from some of the world’s governments, mean that many countries are still struggling to cope with the pandemic and its economic, political and social devastation. And while the world now moves forward with vaccinations, many countries in the Global South are left behind. Additionally, the pandemic isn’t over yet; new strains and ever-changing public health guidance leaves an uncertain future for the global community.
But as the world begins to learn more about different country’s public health responses, key lessons have emerged. In particular, several countries have proved to be successful in controlling the virus and mitigating its effects.
To determine the effectiveness of different country’s pandemic control, it is necessary to take into account three elements: healthcare responses, political responses and economic responses. In the past year, the Lowy Institute launched the COVID-19 Performance Index to assess different pandemic responses in nearly 100 countries. Countries were ranked based on their lock-down implementation, testing regimes, confirmed cases and death rates. The Institute found that the best global responses to COVID-19 were countries that were successful in achieving these goals with early action and mass testing. Countries identified as victors have been able to take COVID-19 transmission under control while monitoring the status closely to prevent another potential relapse.
In contrast, countries that failed to effectively manage the pandemic have seen devastating consequences, including mass infections and high death rates. For instance, India — with over 11 million infected cases — is ranked at 86th out of 100 countries, while England ranks 66th with the highest death number in Europe. For these countries, the lack of a quick and adequate response was likely caused by early disregard for the severity of the virus, opposition to scientific guidelines by country officials or inefficient enforcement of lock-downs.
This article will provide a brief overview of countries that have been labeled relative “victors” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
China: Strict Policies
China, the first country where COVID-19 became prevalent in 2020, has implemented efficient policies and public health strategies since last March. To first tackle the pandemic, China initiated a uniform and centralized response and alerted Chinese citizens quickly when deadly cases first appeared in Wuhan Province.
One of the most critical policies undertaken was an immediate lockdown of Wuhan Province in January 2020, following a surging number of COVID-19 related deaths in late 2019. The province’s quarantine lasted for 76 days with 14,000 health checkpoints established to conduct timely tests. More impressive was the fact that 9 million people were tested during the region’s lockdown under short notice and with limited medical personnel.
As Wuhan underwent a severe lockdown, other cities throughout China quickly followed suit. Outdoor activities were severely restricted and person-to-person interaction was significantly reduced. Throughout China, the government implemented face mask mandates and daily temperature tests for individuals looking to leave their homes for essential goods. In China, the government also implemented swift policies related to education: school openings were delayed and online classes were instated countrywide.
The decisiveness of Chinese policy regarding virus containment and elimination has proven to be successful, even over a year after the first emergence of the virus. In China, life has generally returned to pre-COVID normality. Fast response along with strong enforcement were the determining factors for getting preliminary virus transmission under control.
A significant factor that prompted China’s recovery from COVID-19 was its political system. As an authoritarian country, China handled the emergency more easily than democracies across the world. China was able to mobilize the country’s resources to impose strict lock-downs and attempt to control the spread. The deeply centralized and dictatorial style of governance allowed for a military-style mobilization, which was the defining characteristic of China’s pandemic response. 170,000 party officials, executives and military personnels were summoned by Chairman Xi Jinping in a conference, who laid out clear guidelines of governing responsibilities. China’s Communist Party (CCP) demonstrated its formidable and controlling capacity in declaring and administering emergency crises.
While China has been fast in their early actions and eager to control COVID-19’s spread, China has nonetheless been blamed for its failures in the early stages of the catastrophe. Former U.S. President Donald Trump blames China for the pandemic. He also pointed out that China did not engage in full information sharing with foreign officials, which resulted in an uncontrollable spread. Admittedly, the Wuhan mayor acknowledged that China failed to reveal necessary information in a “timely manner,” and that doctors who treated the first patients in Wuhan were under a strict order to downplay the severity of the virus and to keep silent. Moreover, many believe that the virus emerged originally from China, however, after extensive background research and laboratory tests, its spread pattern remains elusive.
Under the Trump administration, Washington saw this as an opportunity to downgrade China’s global reputation. Trump often called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” and throughout the United States, anti-Chinese sentiment spiked and there has been an increase in hate crimes and acts of violence against the Asian American community.
But, other countries that implemented similar policies and enacted national lockdowns did not seem to generate promising results. This is because in addition to a strict nationwide quarantine, China’s track and trace programs were also effective and efficiently implemented. China put procedures in place that required each individual not only to self-track, but also to report and document their health status using apps, QR codes and social media platforms. Individuals who wanted access to public places had to demonstrate their green QR code, proving their good health status. This enabled local authorities to closely monitor the rate of virus transmission and implement policies accordingly.
In contrast, many western countries failed to establish an effective surveillance system on health status and, therefore, lacked crucial information about virus transmission and its severity. For example, the UK has been criticized for its poor tracking system, which rendered it difficult for the country’s authorities to record accurate numbers of infected individuals and trace case interactions While the number of deadly cases were on the rise, a significant data-entry error occurred due to logistical problems, further delaying the UK’s effective tracing program during the moment it mattered most.
Essentially, China’s government was able to engage in early, sweeping and deeply restrictive action in the name of public health. Comparatively, the United States was late to the game with poor testing checkpoints, an overwhelmed healthcare system, crippling numbers and a lack of cohesive federal action under the Trump administration. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it was reported that American labs were experiencing difficulties with processing CDC-approved testing kits. As a result, confirmed cases during early February 2020 only reached about 500, which was significantly lower than the actual number of active cases in the country.
As China was taking strict measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 in February, the U.S. government implemented few policies targeting the virus and therefore lost the chance to control the pandemic before it spiralled out of control. It wasn’t until late February 2020, almost 2 months after the first case was reported, that the United States declared a state of emergency and began implementing travel bans, as well as considering vaccine development.
New Zealand: Successful Leadership
New Zealand is a unique case when it comes to understanding how countries combatted COVID-19, not only due to its distinct geographical characteristics but also because of the government’s strong enforcement of health protocols.
New Zealand’s government underwent swift actions at the early stages of pandemic to contain the virus’ spread. The international community has praised New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who executed quick and decisive measures, including a strict national lockdown and quarantine orders, with the hope of eliminating the virus. The country has identified one last-known COVID-19 case and therefore marked the end of the pandemic only in 103 days since the first case, making it fewer than 2000 COVID-19 cases altogether and 25 deaths in New Zealand. Ardern has led New Zealand with optimism and science at the forefront of her policy — reinforcing the idea that the battle against COVID-19 could be won.
In the early stages of the pandemic, Ardern gave a speech directly to New Zealanders, which many observers noted had a soothing effect on preparing the island as a united front, ready to collectively work as a country in the name of public health. Her policies included strict quarantine for anyone entering New Zealand, suspension of select foreign travel, and a suspension of select domestic travel within the country’s borders. While COVID-19 cases were exponentially increasing in Europe and the United States in March 2020, New Zealand reported about only 1,500 cases by the end of May 2020. More importantly, New Zealand officials encouraged effective communication with health officials and supported the country’s scientists and health experts.
However, with a population of only 4.8 million people, New Zealand was able to easily move ahead the curb. The advantage of a relatively smaller population and New Zealand’s unique geographical features have played an indispensable role in its successful COVID-19 response. As an island country, New Zealand’s mountainous terrain limits residential capacity and population density remains low. It was also fairly easy to control the country’s borders.
Comparing New Zealand’s successful efforts with those of the United States is like night and day. Former President Donald Trump decided to disband the White House’s pandemic response team in May 2018. Trump also repeatedly communicated false statements about the pandemic to the American public. His dubious attitude toward science and the pandemic have proven to be detrimental to controlling the pandemic. As of March 2021, the U.S death toll reached 568,000. After being infected with COVID-19, himself, and receiving medical care in Washington, Trump had a triumphant return to the White House, and told Americans: “Don’t be afraid of COVID.”
Trump’s leadership, or lack thereof, posed a genuine threat to the American pandemic response — a stark contrast with the decisive and science-forward leadership of Ardern.
Finland: Clear Communication
On the European continent, a successful model that has emerged from the pandemic is Finland, which has one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates among the Nordic countries. With a population half of Sweden’s, Finland has only around one-tenth of Sweden’s confirmed cases and record 805 deaths in total. The low infection rates and death rates are largely attributed to its aggressive and early action.
When the first identified case emerged, Finland implemented a two-month long lock-down swiftly following closings of public facilities including schools and restaurants. More importantly, the central feature that made such early action possible is because the constitution in Finland permitted its government to use the Emergency Act to enforce lock-down measures, which Sweden failed to use since it had a stricter constitution only for emergency situations such as war.
Other than swift actions undertaken in early 2020, which happened two weeks earlier than other Scandinavian countries, through the increased usage of social media, Finland has excelled at public health communication, which has allowed its citizens to fully understand the severity of the virus. Clear communication was the key to Finland’s success, according to Finnish doctors, who professed direct guidelines to encourage social distancing and quarantine rules. The Finnish government also ran on transparent management with weekly public briefings with press conferences and open ground for questions commenced by Prime Minister Sanna Marin. Finland also utilized the power of technology to raise awareness of COVID-19.
It has also effectively monitored the growth of COVID-19 through an app called “Corona Flush.” This app was widely adopted by almost every person in Finland and enabled the country to identify and keep track of virus cases. Additionally, the Finnish government partnered with social media influencers, who spread the correct information about the virus on various digital platforms. The role of social media influencers includes raising awareness and reaching as many audiences as possible, especially young people who are more active on digital media. One of the most prominent collaborations was between the Finnish government and social media influencer PING Helsinki, who was responsible for editing government messages into appropriate format and posting them on her personal account. The instances of such cooperation prevail since Finnish people have high faith in social media and have a tendency to reach fact-based information on digital networks.
Finland has also been alert in keeping track of potential relapse of COVID-19 spread after its initial success. In fact, as there have been rising cases of COVID-19 cases in the past month, the Finnish government has immediately declared a state of emergency and responded with closing of restaurants and schools again in order to minimize human contact. It has also declared entry restrictions for any Schengen Area countries until April 2021 to prevent incoming virus. The border control has also been reinforced by a limited operation hour for the border crossing point. The Ministry highlighted that anybody who wishes to enter Finnish border must be tested negative in order to be qualified.
Though it is impossible to replicate the success of combatting COVID-19 in one country in another, there are still many lessons we can glean from the success of COVID-19’s “victors.”
Early action, a respect for science, decisive leadership and effective communication were critical factors in several countries’ successful pandemic response But countries ought to continuously monitor the virus and public health in order to prevent another outbreak — whether it be different COVID-19 strains or different viruses all together.