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  • Writer's picturePatty Pelingon

Revisiting International Responses to COVID-19

Last December, the Institute for Sustainable Development published a blog post reviewing several different countries’ responses to COVID-19, namely South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Australia, and Sweden. Here’s a quick update on where we stand now.

By December 2nd, 2020, around the time that the original blog was published, the number of confirmed cases worldwide was 64.7 million with 1.5 million deaths. At that point, there was some optimism that with the vaccine roll-outs, the pandemic would taper off sometime in Q1 or Q2 of 2021. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

As of September 13, 2021, the number of global cases has grown to 224.6 million with 4.6 million deaths, according to BBC. The United States of America leads in number of cases and deaths (40.7 million and approximately 656,000, respectively), followed by Brazil, India, and then Mexico. The number of vaccine doses administered worldwide is approximately 5.7 million and climbing every day, but with the Delta variant and other evolutions of COVID, there are very real fears that it may take much longer to tame the virus than previously believed.

Below, we revisit the responses of some of the countries previously reviewed, along with some new ones based on data from the TIME article, “The Best Global Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic, 1 Year Later.” Data on cases and deaths are from BBC and are current as of September 13, 2021. Vaccination rates are from CNN and current as of the same date.

Taiwan: 16,088 cases and 839 deaths

Taiwan’s initial COVID response was characterized by prompt border closure, a ban on the export of surgical masks, daily briefings from medical officials, and aggressive precautionary measures put in place before patrons could enter businesses. The government also implemented contract tracing and mobile SIM tracking to identify those in quarantine and ensure that they were following safety protocols. However, this level of surveillance would likely not be welcome in some other countries. Furthermore, Taiwan’s Vice President is an epidemiologist, and the country has previous public health disaster experience from the SARS epidemic twenty years ago. During the pandemic, Taiwan even reached a point where it was in a position to send other countries much-needed medical supplies that it was able to spare. However, the country’s ability to keep cases and deaths to a minimum has resulted in a lower sense of urgency to get vaccinated when compared to other countries.

Singapore: 71,687 cases and 58 deaths

Singapore’s response has also included aggressive contract tracing and strict monitoring. The government has also put out multiple and sizeable stimulus packages, providing citizens with deep financial reserves to help withstand the shocks to the economy that would result from events like COVID-19. Similar to Taiwan, it is likely that previous experience with SARS lent itself to the success of Singapore’s COVID-19 response. However, a secondary outbreak stemming from overcrowded migrant housing has also yielded criticism about the country’s response. At one point, 88% of cases were seen in migrant housing areas. 75.9% of Singapore’s population is fully vaccinated, compared to Taiwan’s vaccination rate of 4.4%.

South Korea: 274,415 cases and 2,360 deaths

South Korea has responded to the pandemic with intense levels of testing, contract tracing, and quarantining. Early on, the country began developing COVID-19 tests and was even able to export these tests and other medical supplies abroad. South Korea also has previous public health disaster experience from the MERS epidemic in 2015. Only 39.1% of South Korea’s population is fully vaccinated. This could be attributed to the government’s emphasis on monoclonal antibody drugs for treatment instead.

New Zealand: 3,950 cases and 27 deaths

New Zealand made headlines earlier in the pandemic for their quick and aggressive lockdown measures, consistent measuring, strong political leadership, and emphasis on testing. Less than three weeks after their first confirmed case, they shut down their borders to outside visitors, which was much quicker than most other countries. One week later, the country implemented a “level 4 lockdown” in which citizens could only interact with other members of their household. Despite these early intense precautions, New Zealand’s vaccination rate is at 30.1%.

Australia: 75,324 cases and 1,098 deaths

New Zealand’s close neighbor also has a COVID-19 response worth highlighting. Australia’s response has included limiting travel both from outside and within the country. The pandemic prompted Australia’s government leaders from across the political spectrum to heed the advice of science and health officials. Australia’s vaccination rate is similar to that of New Zealand’s at 33.6%.

Other countries highlighted in the TIME article include Canada (dubbed “Best of the G-7”), Germany (given an “Honorable Mention”), Iceland, United Arab Emirates, Greece, and Argentina.

Key Take-Aways:

1) Previous public health disaster experience helped Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea have more successful responses to the pandemic. Other countries, like New Zealand and Australia, benefited from analyzing and benchmarking previous pandemic responses.

2) All of the early standouts implemented swift border closures, quarantines, contact tracing, and other “circuit breakers” to slow the spread of the virus.

3) On the other hand, the early standouts have taken different approaches to vaccination and herd immunity. Singapore has implemented one of the most successful vaccination programs in the world. On the other hand, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand have comparatively low vaccination rates.

4) A country’s response to COVID-19 is dependent on a variety of factors. Leadership expertise, status of the economy, public trust in the government, technology tools, cultural attitudes toward civil liberties, attitudes toward pharmaceuticals and other medical treatments, public health strategies and objectives, population size, and connectedness are all factors that affected and differentiated international responses.

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