The novel Coronavirus has affected the world in ways previously inconceivable. Countries historically equipped to manage catastrophes have struggled to contain the virus, while poorer countries have succeeded beyond expectation. The previously impenetrable global order has been, in many ways, all but reversed. With a vaccine developed and some semblance of normalcy in reach, the world is left with one question: Why has COVID-19 managed to operate seemingly oblivious to the global order?
As of January 2021, New Zealand, Vietnam, Rwanda, and Taiwan have been hailed as some of the most successful nations in addressing the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, world powers such as the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy join Israel, Brazil, and Argentina in an inability to successfully contain the pandemic. The bulk of countries, including India, Singapore, Ireland, China, and Bangladesh, fall somewhere in between.
This unprecedented reordering of global society has been attributed to a number of factors. It is likely that population, geography, preparation, and politics have all contributed to containment and fatality rates. In all of this, however, one thing has become clear: economic power had little to no effect on ability to address the virus.
Unsurprisingly, geography has been particularly impactful on ability to avert the Coronavirus. Due to their inherently remote nature, island nations have had a unique advantage in addressing the pandemic. Samoa, Micronesia, Laos, and the Solomon Islands have all had few cases, and even fewer deaths. New Zealand has been hailed as most successful in containing the virus, likely in part due to its ability to completely shut down international trade and travel seamlessly.
Population has also had an impressive impact on a country’s success in COVID rates and mortality. African countries have had unexpected success during the pandemic, likely in part due to their young population. The continent has a median age of 19.7, compared to Europe’s median age of 42.6. In a pandemic which disproportionately affects the elderly, this has an unimaginable impact on mortality rates. Further, countries which are frequently affected by diseases such as malaria, measles, and water-bourne parasites boast a population with immune systems more equipped to ward off infection.
Regardless of geographic and population advantages, preparedness and previous epidemic experience presides over these conditions. Nations accustomed to protecting its citizens from epidemics had better programs in place to address COVID-19. Nigeria, for example, began testing and checking temperatures at the border upon discovery of the virus, likely due to their learned experiences with Ebola. Strict lockdowns were implemented rapidly, in some instances well before the first cases were reported in the nation. Asian countries were already accustomed to wearing face masks, even integrating face masks into culture and fashion well before COVID-19. When the novel Coronavirus was discovered, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore were well prepared to take the necessary precautions.
Despite all of this, the greatest indicator of a countries’ capacity to contain the virus appears to be political culture. Countries which emphasize civil liberty and privacy, such as the UK, US, Canada, and Germany did not utilize as many resources in contact tracing. Further, they were met with opposition when proposing mask and social distancing policies. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea immediately began using CCTV cams, GPS data, and credit card tracking to trace and isolate infections rapidly. They then provided families with the necessary food, medical supplies, and infrastructure to immediately begin quarantine. Their success is particularly impressive when taking populational density into account.
Leadership, a facet of political culture, has also revealed itself as a huge factor in containment efforts. National leaders that did not display a unified position were unsuccessful in building trust and unity with their population. Countries with leaders that downplayed the virus were most negatively affected by COVID-19. India’s Prime Minister relayed that yoga could build immunity against COVID, Vladimir Putin declared victory over the virus followed by a massive parade, Brazil’s President Bolsonaro refused to wear a mask before being court-mandated, and President Trump repeatedly mocked the virus and questioned its legitimacy. These four countries have the highest rates of infection per million people.
Of all of these factors; geography, population, preparation, and political culture, economic conditions seem to have no effect on successful containment of COVID-19. Instead, Coronavirus has become the “great equalizer” in international politics. For the first time in modern history a catastrophe has interrupted the global order of development and underdevelopment. The question now is whether economics was ever the appropriate measure of success to begin with.
Sources: Lowy Institute, DW, NECSI