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Wed 27 May 2020
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Paul Niland finds a pattern in the international responses to COVID-19, with populists who ignore the evidence having fared worst.

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According to some parties in the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson among them, now is not the time to be making international comparisons about how countries are dealing with the challenges of handling the deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

This is the same attempt to deflect from responsibility and to avoid any kind of probe into possible solutions that can also be seen in the US after every mass shooting when Americans are told that “now is too soon” to be having any kind of practical discussion about how to address what is, very clearly, a crisis.

An examination of what has gone right and wrong in various countries is not only timely, it is necessary, because what we know for certain is that we have not, yet, beaten the Coronavirus. Lessons can still be learned and need to be learned – quickly.


The Price of Populism

There are a few caveats. Yes, every country has a differing demographic and every country has under-reported death counts, with some who have died as a result of COVID-19 having been misclassified as having lost their lives for other reasons.

Every country has a lower recorded number of confirmed positive cases than actual cases because every country will have people who are asymptomatic, though we know (and have known for some time, to the surprise of some Republican politicians) that such carriers are also shedding the virus and infecting others. None of these factors, however, play such a critical role in observable success or failure as policy.

There are several countries that have performed very badly… What binds those countries together? They are, each, led by men who asked us long ago to disregard facts.

At some point, there will be inquiries, focusing on accountability for the lies, the missed opportunities and the failures to actually ‘follow the science’ when politicians claimed to be doing just that, which have combined in a perfect storm resulting in such large death tolls.

Several countries have fared well, such as South Korea, Germany, Greece and New Zealand. But, others – the UK, the US and Russia – have performed very badly and are now (and will continue to be) paying for the policy failures of their governments in the currency of filled body bags. What binds these countries together? They are, each, led by men who asked us long ago to disregard facts. Now, as leaders, they have failed in their most basic duty, to protect the lives of their citizens.


Adjacent to Populists – Ireland, Canada, Ukraine

The UK sits next to, and shares strong ties with, the country of Ireland. One country is led by a physician, and the other is led by a populist. One country cancelled St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, as the other country went ahead, at the very same time, with The Cheltenham Festival. The UK has just become the European nation with the most lives lost to COVID-19, more than 30,000 (at least) whereas Ireland has 1,375. The UK has performed 21,330 tests per million people, whereas Ireland has done 43,493.

The US sits next to, and shares a border with and similar population demographics with, Canada. The two countries have tested on a similar level, 23,349 tests per million people south of the border and 24,921 tests per million north of the border. But their deaths per million are staggeringly different, with the US (the stand alone leader in total deaths at this time, at 72,321) at 218 deaths per million population and Canada at just less than half of that, with 107.

While Donald Trump may think that his response to the crisis has been excellent, the facts paint a totally different picture. Why? Because the White House is in chaos. Trump’s response to almost any problem is to put Jared Kushner in charge, and that “policy” (more a lack of policy) has now been tested to breaking point. Much of the debate in the US right now is centred on hair cuts being a constitutional right and restaurants being allowed to accept diners again, this, at a point in the infection cycle where numbers are still not under control and are rising in at least twenty states, is sheer madness. But that is what is being encouraged, even mandated, by the Trump Administration. That Administration is now planning to end the task force that is, nominally, in charge of addressing the crisis in the hardest-hit country in the world.

Russia sits next to, and shares a border with Ukraine. While the personal fiefdom of Vladimir Putin has more than three times the population of the infinitely more democratic neighbour to the south, Russia has recorded more than 10,000 new cases per day several days in a row at the time of writing, and Ukraine has averaged less than 500 new cases per day at the same time.

The difference? As soon as the first cases appeared in Ukraine, the authorities made a decision to begin a lockdown immediately, and in doing so they put physical barriers between potential carriers and got the rate of spread, with an already low number of infected people anyway, down to impressive levels. At the same time, what was Russia doing? The Kremlin wanted two things, the first was an 22 April national referendum endorsing Putin’s rule-for-life constitutional changes and the second was a big Red Square military parade on 9 May.

In focusing on these two things, and turning a blind eye to the epic crisis that was unfolding, life went on as normal and Putin told the country (dishonestly of course) that everything was under control. Rehearsals for the parade, with 20,000 soldiers in very close contact with one another, went ahead as though nothing was happening and now the country is just seeing the beginning of the disastrous incline in case numbers.

So, it is, in fact, not really that difficult to make international comparisons, or to understand the reasons for why outbreaks have been accelerated or stopped in one place when compared even to their closest neighbours. Nor is it hard to look at and understand the reasons why events have unfolded in these ways.

Another country facing disaster, lagging behind other places in the time-frame that it took for the problem to get a hold there, is Brazil. Why? Because Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is a COVID-19 denier. Rejecting science, and the advice of the World Health Organisation, Bolsonaro has dismissed the severity of disease and attacked, on TV, state governors who had put in place stay at home orders. When the disease moves through the cramped favelas the effects will be devastating, and it was avoidable, but not for this particular right wing populist.

Are we seeing an emerging pattern yet?


Science-Based Precautionary Policies

While there is plenty of blame to be meted out, fairly and rightly, there are also places where there is praise to be dished out.

Angela Merkel of Germany, a scientist by profession, gets first prize in the category of explaining difficult concepts. Her missive explaining at what point different infection rate changes lead to overwhelmed ICUs is a masterclass in government communications. Germany has a competent person in charge, the country was one of the hardest hit in terms of the (known) prevalence of the virus in the country (sixth in the world at 167,239 cases) but their greatest success has been in how fast they have traced contacts and then isolated and treated them all very early and as such the death rate there per million of population is an incredibly low 83. France, by comparison, has an almost identical number of cases but a death rate per million of 391.

Some people have suggested that the success of New Zealand as an anomaly. It is an island nation (so is the UK) and it is isolated at the end of the world, so it is different, detractors claim. This line of thinking dismisses a great success story and a copyable model, of both entering and exiting lockdown, as future waves of the disease will affect us all, globally, until a treatment and vaccine exist.

What Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did, without hesitation and with public health as her single consideration, was to listen to the experts and move fast to implement their advice. In the countries that have not fared so well, expertise has become derided, and science is often ignored or disputed as facts and opinions have morphed into concepts of equitable value.

The science behind tracing contacts of people known to carry the virus has kept the country of South Korea from even going into lockdown at all. While society there moves today at a slower pace than normal, re-enacting their previous SARS experience has meant that they have, by and large, kept their economy functioning. Deaths per million stands at five.

Slovakia is also a remarkable success story, and part of their mitigation strategy was the early adoption of regulation requiring facemasks to be worn in public at all times. Whereas in the United States, something that simple and apparently effective is being debated as if it is a matter of infringement of constitutional rights.


The European gold standard in effective handling of this matter is Greece. The Prime Minister of that country has recently said that a major factor in their thinking there is that they have been through their populist phase, they had actually elected and been governed by those people, and know the painful lessons that were learned. Fortunately for the people of Greece the populist experiment wasn’t underway during what is, undoubtedly, an unprecedented challenge for every country. Greece has recorded 2,642 cases and 146 deaths.

One stand out fact from Greece is that in the main COVID-19 hospital in Athens not one single healthcare worker has become infected. This is likely attributable to fact that early actions meant that hospitals were never overwhelmed with patients (Russian ambulance drivers can queue for up to 10 hours to admit a patient right now) and also to the fact that Greece had on hand sufficient supplies of PPE, meaning that it could be changed (as required by medical protocols to avoid contamination between different patients) between patients and doctors and nurses were properly protected from exposure. In Russia healthcare workers are “falling” out of windows for complaining about the lack of PPE there.

Yes, we can make international comparisons. They are necessary, lessons can be learned. These are hard conversations, especially for those who have got things so monumentally wrong, but the hardest conversation ever is to tell a person that a loved one has died. That’s why this discussion must be had, and why inquiries will certainly follow.


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