While the United States, the UK, Italy and other wealthy Western countries have struggled to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus, many less affluent countries—as well as affluent Asian countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan--have had far greater success in containing and mitigating the spread of contagion. One emergent theme from this observation is that the countries exhibiting the greatest success facing the pandemic share the same basis for their resilience: They have experience with pandemics and have effectively used that experience in preparing for this one.
Nations across Africa and Asia have battled SARS, MERS, the swine flu, and Ebola in the last two decades, and have clearly learned from those public health crises. While some "world powers" struggle, other places with first-hand experience are tapping that wisdom, along with some creativity and cooperation, to effectively ameliorate the effects of this pandemic.
The stories in this collection (see below) highlight how some of these countries are deploying lessons learned from earlier epidemics to resist COVID-19. Liberia is using its Prevent/Detect/Respond protocol developed during the Ebola epidemic by hiring unemployed residents as community health workers, who go door to door to provide tests, information, and resources. The Democratic Republic of Congo, ravaged during the Ebola crisis, has banned traditional funerals that involve large numbers of people closely interacting with (potentially) infected corpses and implemented alternative mourning rituals. Macau, the world’s gambling hub that normally accepts 100,000 visitors every day, implemented a rapid and dramatic response to the first reported case, and despite being the world’s most densely populated area, has only 30 confirmed cases. The southern Indian state of Kerala is experiencing similar success by implementing aggressive testing, contact tracing, and providing uncooked meals to the poor to prevent them from venturing out. Each of these measures builds on its past investments in citizen engagement surrounding healthcare.
Click here for more teaching collections on COVID-19.
- Explain how countries that have faced prior public health crises appear to be more effective in fighting the pandemic than those who, until now have been relatively unscathed.
- Evaluate the relationship between a country’s relative wealth and the effectiveness of its response to the pandemic. Can money solve a country’s epidemiological challenges, or is there more involved in effective responses? Be specific.
- Many of the countries that have successfully responded to the pandemic have relatively authoritarian systems of government and deep communitarian values. Compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of, for example, how a liberal democracy like Canada can respond to this crisis versus the response of a highly regimented society like Singapore or Taiwan.
- Numerous factors are engaged by this question. Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore that have already confronted domestic epidemics (MERS, SARS) wisely followed up by establishing detailed plans, protocols, and governmental agencies dedicated to epidemiological and social preparedness. These advance efforts allowed such countries to respond with force and speed to the COVID-19 challenge. These countries appear to exhibit a deeper understanding of the dangers posed by epidemics than their Western peers. In addition, such countries experience far less social resistance to draconian public health preventative measures such as sheltering in place, and exhibit a communal ethos in which the body politic understands such policies as promoting the greater good, rather than taking an individualistic approach that perceives such measures as invasive and limiting.
- Clearly, financial capacity, while important in many ways, is no panacea for providing containment and mitigation of a pandemic. The most successful countries in resisting the pandemic combine several key elements: broad social commitment to preventative protocols; unified political will and governmental transparency; rapid, dramatic, and widespread interventions in the typical social fabric of a society; civic trust, and a belief—at least temporarily—by all stakeholders that the common good outweighs the particular rights of individuals. In stark fiscal terms, the world’s wealthiest country with the most advanced and expensive health care system in the world—the United States—lags far behind not only it’s wealthy Western peers in effectively fighting the pandemic, but also non-peer countries like Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. What we're learned so far is that effective responses to such crises require a socio-political and civic response, not simply a financial response.
- Answers will vary to this question. Quasi-authoritarian governments typically have much more latitude and ability to engage in rapid response than those of liberal democracies. A country like China can order a billion people to stay home; Singapore or Macau can almost instantly institute radical preventive measures. Imagine what the response would be if New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that no one was entering or leaving New York city, or that Las Vegas was simply closed. Hong Kong or Taiwan can literally close their borders to all travelers. India, the world’s largest democracy, is an interesting case for discussion, having put over a billion people on lockdown in one of the most crowded countries on earth.