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