Back in June, my Eurasia Group colleagues and I took a look at how countries around the world were handling the initial outbreak of the pandemic. To do that, we focused on three key metrics: healthcare responses, political responses and financial responses. Plenty has changed since then. The world has developed and begun distributing different vaccines with varying degrees of efficacy; lockdowns have come and gone… and come back again; some countries have undergone crucial political transitions; and new virus mutations have begun to appear, to name just a few. With all that in mind, it's high time to look back at the initial batch of countries that we deemed as standouts in the early days of the pandemic, to learn what their experiences have taught us as the pandemic continues to shape our daily lives.
Below, you will find quick updates on the countries, followed by three big lessons we need to take away as we head into the next phase of the pandemic.
Neighbors and front-line states: Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea
June 2020: 443 cases; 7 deaths**
February 2021: 940 cases, 9 deaths
Taiwan continues to post admirable numbers when it comes to Covid-19, a testament to what early action and aggressive monitoring brings to the table when battling a pandemic. It's made even more impressive when you consider that Taiwan never undertook the kinds of draconian nationwide lockdowns other countries on the list took to post such sterling results (though it did recently restrict incoming travel from anyone who wasn't a Taiwan citizen or resident). Of course, all this comes with the caveat that much of its ability to monitor and keep tabs on the situation wouldn't necessarily fly in countries where citizens are more averse to surveillance. And the flipside of doing so well in keeping cases and deaths to a minimum? The sense of urgency around vaccinating the population is nowhere near as high as other countries where the pandemic runs rampant. That could spell problems down the road (see below).
In the initial days of an outbreak, the only thing as bad as being the epicenter of a global pandemic is being right next door to one… especially one that has it out for you (politically speaking). Despite that, the self-governing island has managed a truly admirable response in less-than-ideal circumstances; as of this week, Taiwan has registered just 443 cases and seven casualties.
Rather than shuttering its economy for weeks on end in an attempt to slow the virus, Taiwan went another way—after quickly closing its borders and banning exports of surgical masks, the government used contact tracing and mobile Sim-tracking to identify and ensure those in quarantine were actually abiding by the rules. Taiwan has a single-payer healthcare system, medical officials held briefings for the public daily, and businesses were kept open by using aggressive precautionary measures like taking temperatures and providing sanitizer before patrons could enter business establishments. Throughout, the government's centralized response was seen as convincing and credible—it certainly didn't hurt that Taiwan's vice president is an epidemiologist.
You're not China's neighbor without learning some things along the way, and the SARS experience nearly twenty years ago helped gird Taiwan for pandemics and the general China skepticism. Taiwan has also leveraged its own response into diplomatic outreach, sending other hard hit countries much-needed medical supplies that it could spare (complete with “Made in Taiwan” emblazoned masks). Of course, no good deed goes unpunished—Taiwan's admirable response has drawn the ire of China who is worried about Taiwan's outreach as a way to gather allies for its independence push. And the use of SIM-tracking has given rise to some legitimate privacy concerns. But for now, Taiwan's response ranks among the world's best.
June 2020: 38,965 cases; 25 deaths
February 2021: 59,832 cases; 29 deaths
Singapore is a similar story to Taiwan—early and aggressive moves by the government to use technology and the powers of the state to enforce strict monitoring to ensure transmission remains at a minimum have yielded results in the city-state's battle against the pandemic. Singapore's ability to get students back at universities has made it the envy of the academic world, even if the work needed to keep the student bodies safe—like limiting the amount of students that can be in cafeterias and making them register their temperatures multiple times a day through an app—have resulted in a less-than-normal experience for students. The country also continues to face serious criticisms about inequality after the vast majority of cases were found in the migrant population, which remains subject to stricter conditions than others. Going forward, the worry is that the same kind of vaccine complacency seen in Taiwan will also afflict Singapore, which has the money to secure vaccines to inoculate its residents but has been dragging its feet in doing so. That could come back to haunt them.
Singapore was among the first countries hailed a “winner” for its pandemic response, a well-deserved reputation on the back of its aggressive approach to contact-tracing (which included scanning people's IDs at supermarkets) and widespread testing. In retrospect, Singapore was well-positioned to outperform others in its pandemic response given its previous lessons learned from the SARS epidemic, its small size (5.7 million people total) and centralized “nanny state” approach not just to healthcare crises, but other facets of policy as well. The government built temporary bed spaces at breakneck speeds to house COVID-19 patients, keeping the casualty rate low (<0.1% of confirmed cases).
Singapore's response was tarnished with a secondary outbreak centered in overcrowded migrant housing, highlighting the awful living conditions (with as many as 20 people sleeping in the same room) endured by the city's hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. At one point, 88 percent of the country's cases were in the migrant housing areas that eluded the government's initial response, calling attention to the incredible inequality in Singaporean society.
Still, the government's multiple and sizeable stimulus packages (totaling 20 percent of the country's GDP) to keep its economy afloat is admirable, as was its ability to build up deep financial reserves over the years to help it weather precisely these types of financial shocks. Its central bank further fortified the economic response by sharply easing monetary policies by levels not seen since the Global Financial Crisis. And despite its troubling treatment of migrant workers, it has also successfully managed to keep the outbreak from expanding further into the general population, a good sign that it can respond effectively to contain new cases.
June 2020: 11,902 cases; 276 deaths
February 2021: 85,567 cases; 1,544 deaths
South Korea continues to be a standout among the world's advanced industrial democracies when it comes to keeping Covid-19 cases and fatalities to a minimum. It has done so by aggressively dealing with the smallish outbreaks that keep popping up, wrestling them to the ground before they become a threat to the larger population. Again, this is made possible not just by the government willing to take the necessary testing/tracing/quarantining measures, but a population willing to abide by those policies for the greater good. But that doesn't mean South Korea has done everything right—while the country has managed to purchase vaccines for its population, it isn't at the front of the line for receiving them compared to countries like the US and UK. Why? Because South Korea gambled that monoclonal antibody drugs would perform so well that it would severely limit hospitalizations (limiting the need for immediate vaccinations, allowing the government to assess which were best and against which variants), but initial results so far have left plenty to be desired. This is significant misstep (which it is currently trying to address), and one that shows just how many things can still go wrong for the countries that tackled the challenges most successfully in the early days.
South Korea's aggressive early response has helped the country maintain not just a low fatality count but a low overall case-count (just under 12,000, around .02% of the population) that remains the envy of major industrial democracies. And it has done so not just to its own benefit; South Korea began developing Covid-19 tests and scaling up production to thousands-per-day while its own toll was still below a hundred, for instance, and then helped export tests and medical supplies abroad in the critical early days of the global pandemic. Its continued vigilance, extensive testing and contact tracing, isolation, and treatment of confirmed cases remains a model that most other countries can only aspire to… especially as it managed to do so without grinding its economy to a halt.
As a major global economy, South Korea has considerable economic and technological resources at its disposal. It also has experience gained from tackling the 2015 MERS epidemic and a citizenry willing to make the tradeoffs in privacy that come with deploying technologies like real-time tracking of COVID-19 patients for the sake of public health (and a nationalized health system). Sizable government stimulus—which includes cash payments to most citizens—is helping the country's population ride out the economic turbulence. The result for President Moon Jae-in? Record approval ratings last month and a huge win for his party in National Assembly elections in April. South Koreans have rewarded a job well done; it's hard to blame them.
Oceania standouts: New Zealand and Australia
If there is a common theme emerging, it's this—countries that responded earlier and aggressively tended to have better responses. If there's a second theme, it's that the Oceania countries of New Zealand and Australia have knocked it out of the park in terms of initial response… and from opposite sides of the political spectrum, no less.
Yun Hyun-tae—Yonhap via AP.
June 2020: 1,504 cases; 22 deaths
February 2021: 2,344 cases; 26 deaths
Back in June, New Zealand would have been a strong contender for the single best overall response to the pandemic thanks to quick and aggressive lockdown measures alongside consistent messaging, strong political leadership and emphasis on testing. Many months later, it's still a candidate for the crown of “best responder” as its COVID-19 numbers remain well below that of other advanced industrial democracies (and while managing to avoid a second nation-wide lockdown no less, despite the recent scare in Auckland)… but it's slow rate of vaccination is cause for concern. Not something that should raise alarm bells given the state of pandemic response globally, but also something that needs to be continuously monitored. Also, a reminder that as we move into the next phases of the global pandemic, policymakers will need to call upon different skillsets as they recalibrate their responses to the shifting situations on the ground. So far, New Zealand has managed to pull that off well.
When it comes to a global pandemic, it helps being an island nation tucked away in a far-flung corner of the globe. But New Zealand's rise in the rankings is so much more than good geographic fortune. New Zealand's first case was detected on Feb 28th, and relative to other governments, moved swiftly to shut down the country—less than three weeks later, the country shut its borders to outside travelers, and a week later had not only shut down non-essential businesses but went even further, instituting a “level 4 lockdown” which meant that people could only interact with people within their home in an attempt to “eliminate” the virus all together (accompanied by emergency text messages that plainly explained what was expected of individuals). You need to be in a fortunate position to even be able to attempt that, but the orderly way which New Zealand did so was admirable, accompanied by Facebook Live videos by the country's prime minister, Jacinda Adern. Now the country is COVID-19 free.
As of this writing, New Zealand had registered 1,504 COVID cases total and just 22 COVID-related fatalities. New Zealanders have praised their government's early response and coordinated messaging; in April, 88 percent of New Zealander's said that they trust their government in handling the pandemic, compared to the 59 percent average across the G7. Also helping? A promise by the prime minister that no one would lose their residence if they lost work, a raft of tax reforms aimed at helping the country's small businesses, and the symbolic-yet-still-appreciated move taken by Adern and her ministers to take a 20 percent cut to their salaries. In a budget released in mid-May, a new fund that's roughly equivalent to 17 percent of GDP has been set up to keep jobs and reduce the unemployment rate over the next two years—the move will take the government from a surplus to a deficit this year and next, but what good is running a surplus if you can't use it in times like these?
June 2020: 7,276 cases; 102 deaths
February 2021: 28,912 cases; 909 deaths
It's hard to look good in battling COVID-19 when your neighbor is New Zealand, but Australia has done a decent job managing it. Australia opted for early measures to keep transmission at a minimum which largely worked, limiting travel both from outside the country and within it. When new cases did pop up, authorities moved quickly to shut things down, as seen recently in Melbourne. Again, the lack of cases and deaths has dampened the sense of urgency around vaccination drives, but Australia's not falling too far behind, either. Not bad as we round into the next year of the pandemic.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been one of the friendliest world leaders with Trump so far, but the response between the two leaders could not be more different. The coordinated response of Australian government officials across the political spectrum, and most critically their deference to scientists, has resulted in some of the best numbers in the world (7,276 cases and just 102 deaths in a country of 25 million). The economic stimulus of more than 10 percent of GDP—going towards wage subsidies, doubling unemployment benefits and free childcare for all—helped dramatically, too.
It was far from clear that Australia would fare as well as it has—Morrison hails from a party that has a decade-long track record of taking a confrontational approach to scientists. But as COVID spread, a national cabinet of both federal and state leaders from across the political spectrum to coordinate responses was established, taking their lead from science and health officials rather than the other way around. The results? 93 percent of Australians say that their government “handled COVID-19 very or fairly well.”
In terms of international relations, things are a bit trickier; Australia has taken the international lead in calling for an investigation into the origins of the virus (read: China), a fact that has pleased Trump but ticked off Beijing to no end, which has responded with tariffs. Australia now has to navigate geopolitics carefully as the geopolitical fight between the U.S. and China intensifies, and Australia is caught in the middle. But that doesn't detract from the significant accomplishment of Australia's domestic handling of the initial outbreak and shunting partisan politics to the side.
Best of the G-7: Good initial conditions matter
June 2020: 98,645 cases; 8,035 deaths
February 2021: 839,455 cases; 21,455 deaths
Australia being neighbors with New Zealand makes it hard for the Aussies to look good; Canada has the opposite problem as its neighbor to the south makes Canada's ongoing struggles with Covid-19 look good by comparison. The reality is that the country had a rough time of it during their last spike, and there are real fears about what the new mutated virus variants can do to its struggling healthcare system. But the vaccination drive has started in earnest, even if Canada is worryingly dependent on overseas supplies given their effective lack of domestic production. Further, Canada has not managed to escape the phenomenon that other advanced industrial democracies are grappling with across the world—Covid anti-lockdown protestors who are increasingly bristling against what they feel is government overreach. Despite battling back a difficult second wave, provinces and territories are moving forward with reopening before vaccines have reached even 4 percent of the population, highlighting the tension between the public health reality and political pressures.
The only entry from North America you'll find on this list… and the responses between the Canadian and American federal governments to Coronavirus could not diverge more. Of course, this is not an entirely fair comparison, as healthcare systems and federalized powers differ between the two neighbors. Be that as it may, it's hard not to conclude that Canada's universal, publicly-funded approach to healthcare isn't better suited for handling a global pandemic.
Even in things that are potentially comparable between the U.S. and Canada—say, public messaging coordination around the virus between health agencies and national and local governments, or monetary support of international efforts to cooperate on pandemic responses—Canada is faring much better. And a critical component of that has to do with not letting the pandemic response be seized by partisan politics, relying on science to guide the healthcare responses instead (it remains to be seen if the same will hold true for subsequent economic stimulus measures).
Some academics contend that it was Canada's experience (and more specifically, its failures) with SARS almost 20 years ago that better prepared them for this current pandemic—that experience convinced many Canadians that the federal government has a critical role to play in health care, which before had been the responsibility of the provinces, and the country spent the last decade-plus finding ways to integrate the two. Combine that with significant fiscal and monetary measures taken by Canada (one of the richest countries in the world, and one that values social safety nets at that), those looking towards North America for global leadership in these trying times would probably do well to train their sights a little higher.
Justin Tang—The Canadian Press via AP
Honorable mention: Germany
June 2020: 186,522 cases; 8,752 deaths
February 2021: 2,368,015 cases; 66,831 deaths
Germany has a trickier task than most when it comes to battling the pandemic—not only is it responsible for protecting its own population, but given its outsized influence in the E.U., in effect it has responsibility for the rest of Europe, too. When Germany does well and others suffer in Europe, the criticisms begin. But that's less of an issue at the moment as Germany isn't faring particularly well itself during the most recent outbreak (which some attribute to political games being played ahead of elections), and the vaccination drive is going slower than hoped, even relative to other E.U. countries. The E.U. is fighting to procure more vaccine supplies, and is flirting dangerously close to being considered something of a failure when it comes to the vaccination side of the pandemic response. That's a fact that's made even more disturbing for Germany and Europe given that it was a German company, BioNTech, that developed the first vaccine (in collaboration with Pfizer) to demonstrate very strong efficacy in phase 3 clinical trials. Also a challenge: COVID anti-lockdown protestors are growing in prominence, jeopardizing one of the most robust aspects of Germany's pandemic response thus far.
Germany's response to the virus is held up as a model within Europe, reflecting a measure of good luck as well as its strong starting position. The country was spared the early surge in cases that neighbors Italy and Spain saw, and its quick containment efforts (including widespread testing, extensive public communication and transparency) received broad public support. With plenty of hospitals and intensive care beds, it was able to bend the curve. And it also has helped that, for the most part, social distancing guidelines seem to have been observed.
The government's fiscal effort initially fell short of what some had hoped given its substantial fiscal space, but markets have been impressed by its decision to amend budget rules and adopt a substantial package of measures, and more recently German support for novel pan-European pandemic support mechanisms has changed the shape of European policy forever. It is hard to give full credit to the leading country in Europe when the virus exposes, and in many respects intensifies, pre-existing European cracks and frictions. Europe's rule and standard-setting ability is getting weaker over time on a number of fronts, but against the dysfunction of the world, Germany has handled the crisis well, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is a major reason why.
Small is Beautiful
June 2020: 1,807 cases; 10 deaths
February 2021: 6,044 cases; 29 deaths
The numbers speak for themselves. Not that it has all been smooth sailing for Iceland since June—the country suffered a spike in cases in early fall along with the rest of Europe. But Iceland stayed true to its testing-and-quarantining model, and earlier this month was able to begin the process of reopening bars and gyms (!!!). Vaccination rates are not particularly high, but the overall numbers of both cases (6k) and population (364k) of the island nation—combined with its strong track record in monitoring and follow-up—means it's sitting pretty.
When people talk about the critical importance of testing, Iceland is a clearest example. Following on the heels of its first detected cases by early March, Iceland quickly instituted a broad (and free) testing and contact-tracing regime to identify and isolate Covid-patients, with such good results (just 10 people have died from coronavirus; seven were above the age of seventy) that they were able to avoid a total shutdown and had schools, museums and some businesses begin reopening by the middle of April once the case numbers were firmly in decline. It helps if you're a country of just 364,000 people, but even then Iceland punched above its weight—it had the highest per-capita testing rate worldwide.
The initial rounds of government stimulus did not have the same levels of direct new government spending compared to the economic firepower unleashed by others, but then again, neither has the economic devastation been nearly as bad. The full-scale of the economic hit will be revealed alongside tourism numbers on which Iceland is highly dependent, but for now, Iceland remains one of the better stories.
June 2020: 40,507 cases; 284 deaths
February 2021: 361,877 cases; 1,073 deaths
As we laid out in June, the UAE was facing serious problems aside from coronavirus given all the upheaval going on in oil markets at the time… and still managed one of the world's most robust pandemic responses. It has since had to struggle with flare-ups here and there and is currently wrestling with a decent-sized spike right now, but unlike other countries that managed to avoid the brunt of the first wave of the pandemic, it has taken the vaccination drive very seriously and is now among the top performing countries when it comes to vaccinating its people (and residents as well). The UAE is one of the very few countries that can be considered both a standout in June 2020 and in February 2021; when all is said and done, we may well look back at the UAE as a textbook example of how to handle a global pandemic.
Making this list is hard; making this list while also taking part in a global oil price war is even harder, but the United Arab Emirates have managed it. They've done so by adopting stringent social distancing measures (lockdowns + curfews, even banning public Eid Al Fatr prayers and celebrations) and aggressive disinfection cleaning campaigns, helping limit the total deaths from coronavirus to less than 300 despite having their first confirmed case back on Jan 29th.
It's helpful that all COVID costs are covered by the government irrespective of insurance status; more questionable is their decision to levy $5,500 fines on anyone who shares any medical information on social media that doesn't adhere to the government's narrative, a useful tool for limiting both conspiracy theories… alongside other kinds of speech. In the end, this surveillance system helped ensure that initial lockdown measures were successful—the fines were high but the monitoring mechanism worked to dissuade violations. Its central bank has been particularly aggressive on the liquidity stimulus front (don't forget that oil war, too) as well to provide some financial ballast. Taken together, the UAE coronavirus response ranks high, and it does so in spite all the other geopolitical distractions it has going on these days.
Beating expectations: a good start but challenges ahead
June 2020: 3,068 cases; 183 deaths
February 2021: 174,659 cases; 6,194 deaths
Given all the political, economic and social difficulties Greece had gone through in the ten years leading up to the pandemic, the country was among the most unexpected inclusions on our original list; Greece has since spent the intervening months trying to keep its economy afloat while also keeping its health situation in check. Back in June, we were worried about what would happen to the country when it reopened for tourism—a lifeline for the Greek economy—and while the tourist numbers paled in comparison to other years (according to Ernst & Young, the country registered a 78 percent decline in tourism receipts from January-October relative to the same timeframe last year), the health situation didn't spiral out of control. Much of that can be attributed to the continued monitoring and policy adjustments being made by the government in Athens, which has been quick to lockdown areas with outbreaks while trying to balance those with some semblance of normalcy. But when push comes to shove, the health concerns seemingly win out—just ask the people of Athens, who are currently in lockdown again (as are others in Europe) to keep the new strains in check. That said, the country's vaccination rate isn't particularly high, which has plenty to do with policymakers in Brussels as well. And just like last year, the summer tourist season will be crucial to the country's economic and health situation… which means it will be crucial for its political situation, too.
For a country that was finally showing signs of economic emergence from its decade-long financial crisis, the pandemic could not have hit at a worse time. But there's one major silver-lining: a decade of austerity cuts left Greece with a health infrastructure system unable to carry the weight of any significant coronavirus outbreak in the country. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis saw the writing on the wall, and didn't hesitate—roughly three weeks after Greece recorded its first coronavirus case in late February, the entire country was in strict lockdown. What little resources the Greek state did have was directed to procuring more ICU beds and health workers. The result? Less than 200 COVID-related deaths. Recent polls show Mitsotakis' New Democracy with a 20-point advantage over its next-closest political rival, an impressive showing given a decade of fractious politics that saw the country's entire political spectrum upended by austerity politics. The country has since begun lifting lockdown, allowing Greeks to (mostly) resume daily life.
The hard part is still to come. The Greek economy is overwhelmingly dependent on tourism (accounting for roughly 20% of GDP and 700,000 jobs all told), and restarting the Greek economy means restarting tourism…which also means restarting the possibility of another coronavirus outbreak. The government is attempting to devise a system that will allow tourists to still travel to the country while keeping the risk of the virus spread low (a critical component of which is only allowing travelers from low-case countries in the initial days of the tourist season), but this is new territory for everyone. And given the state of the global economy, it is far from clear that the money and demand for a typical Greek summer vacation—from either foreigners or Greeks themselves—will be there. The next few months will be critical for Greece on multiple fronts, but that shouldn't detract from what it's managed to accomplish so far.
June 2020: 24,761 cases; 717 deaths
February 2021: 2,039,124 cases; 50,616 deaths
Of all the countries on the initial list back in June, Argentina is the only one that would certainly not be on the list today. Relative to Asia, Europe and North America, Covid-19 began spreading late in Latin America; Argentina's outbreak began in earnest in September, and it has not really looked back since. That would be bad enough on its own, but Argentina also continues to face an economic crunch, one of the country's few constants over the last two decades. According to official statistics released in September, more than 40 percent of the country was living in poverty in the first six months of 2020—a rise of more than 5 percent from the preceding six months—and that was before the pandemic began in earnest. When the pandemic did hit, the government didn't develop a strategy beyond imposing a long and strict lockdown (which helped in the initial response), but now makes it difficult for the country to reimpose it if cases begin to rise rapidly. Argentina got some good news recently; the Sputnik V vaccine it has procured from Russia, and has already administered to its President and Vice-President, was just shown to be more than 90 percent effective according to a peer-reviewed study in The Lancet. Given how far behind it is in securing other vaccines out there—and with the limited fiscal space it has—if those peer-review results had gone the other way, Argentina would be in very serious trouble indeed.
The most surprising entry on this list given that the country has triggered its ninth financial default. Argentina registered its first coronavirus fatality on March 7; by the time the government imposed a quarantine on March 20, the world had caught up to the threat of the crisis and Argentina introduced strict social distancing measures and citizens heeded them well. As a result, its numbers look much better than most of its neighbors.
With the bipartisan cooperation of Argentina's governors and congressional figures, the coronavirus management response of Alberto Fernandez's new administration (which garnered the approval of 83 percent of Argentineans) has led to a boost in approval ratings. That domestic approval is critical as he fends off international investors and drives through the country's ninth default.
Fernandez (alongside his vice president and former president Cristina Kirchner) are Peronists who subscribe to more leftist economic policies, and true to their ideological roots, offered low-paid workers a 10,000-peso lump sum to help them weather the crisis. But while their will to spend on domestic stimulus might be there, the reality of their government finances and looming debt repayments to foreign creditors constrains them considerably (their stimulus package amounts to just 4.9 percent of their GDP), and their bid to print more money may push them into inflation hell. Meanwhile, new cases in Buenos Aires are rising, and there is growing criticism of the strict lockdown (restrictions have been eased elsewhere). Nevertheless, their desire to take care of their people and the decision to divert resources from paying debt to do so—even at the risk of looming financial collapse—has been the best choice among bad alternatives.
*How we did it: For each category, we developed a rank ordering of effectiveness based on qualitative and quantitative criteria, then allocated countries to quartiles. For the health metric, we looked at mobility and testing performance (scaled by population); for governmental effectiveness, we used our analyst rankings of the authorities' effort, the public reaction, and domestic and international coordination. Finally, in terms of economic policies, we scaled the magnitude of the fiscal and monetary effort, relative to the financing gap and starting position, adjusted for our teams' view of the scope to respond (fiscal and monetary policy space).
So what do we learn looking back at all the ups and downs these initially strong responders have gone through over these intervening months?
Three things jump out.
1. Falling from Grace? Maybe
First, some of the standouts on this list weathered the initial storm so well that chasing vaccines in an ultra-competitive global environment weren't a priority, or weren't deemed an efficient use of limited resources. Most of the countries that fall into the category from this list—Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia—have leadership and resources to attempt a course correct as necessary, but they need to be wary that a still-mutating virus carries very real risks for them both now and in the future. And given that all these countries are democracies—albeit with electorates with different thresholds for privacy intrusion by their government for the sake of public health—the possibility of population-fatigue from the extensive measures in place (or that will need to be snapped back after being given a brief return to normalcy) poses a real risk to the leaders currently in office, no matter how effectively they handled the early days of the crisis. Non-democracies have to worry about the same thing, but their threshold for social instability threatening their hold on power is higher.
2. Zeroes to Heroes
Second, there were some countries left off the initial list that we wrote back in June because of their lackluster response in the beginning of the pandemic, but that have since managed to acquit themselves well by vaccinating their populations at impressive clip—Israel and the United Kingdom are the poster children for this category, and the United States even deserves an honorable mention. That's obviously excellent news for the sake of their citizens (though it remains to be seen how much it will help the political fortunes of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, both of whom are dealing with other political problems aside from those caused by the pandemic; former President Donald Trump lost election largely on the back of pandemic mismanagement), and shows it's possible to overcome early missteps in pandemic responses.
3. Leadership Matters
Obviously, not all countries started from the same place in terms of healthcare capacity, political systems or financial resources when the pandemic first struck, realities that certainly played out over the course of the last year. Our initial list was comprised mostly of open democracies (save the UAE) given the metrics we were using in June, but countries like Vietnam and China were strong contenders for inclusion back then as well, and have continued to outperform as the pandemic drags on. Which brings us to the critical point—we've seen strong pandemic responses from countries struggling with their finances (see Greece) while seeing the richest country in the world (the United States) struggle mightily with the same pandemic. More than that, we've seen successful responses from repressive regimes like Vietnam and China, and we've also seen successful responses from strong democracies like New Zealand and Australia, among others. Which tells us that it's not money or political orientation alone that leads to successful country responses—leadership is critical, and the ability to create a shared sense of commitment and sacrifice is essential. Those leaders who took the threat most seriously early on and relied on science to guide the policy responses are the ones that have (so far) fared the best. Leadership matters, and the ongoing pandemic is the strongest argument we've seen for that in generations.
This article originally appeared in TIME, February 2021