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Novel Coronavirus: A Comparison of National Responses

By: Ryan Lafferty 

As COVID-19, or the “coronavirus,” has spread across the globe – with nearly 200,000 confirmed cases around the world – infecting countries from China to Iceland to Egypt to Uruguay, national governments everywhere have rushed to respond. The pandemic, which has been responsible for well over 7,000 deaths worldwide as of Tuesday, has placed tremendous strain upon the limited resources of international public health organizations like the World Health Organization, and has stretched the capacities of hospitals and healthcare institutions everywhere it has struck. National responses to the crisis in countries like Italy and Spain are demonstrative of the ramifications of ineffective and inefficient governmental action, while the efforts of states like Vietnam illustrate the efficacy of quick and rapid action.


Five countries and their responses to the coronavirus pandemic are worthy of further investigation: China, where the virus originated, Italy, the current global hot spot of mayhem and crisis, Iran, where political and economic chaos has reigned in the midst of the pandemic, Singapore, where the virus has been contained with relative success, and the United States, where ongoing efforts to limit the spread of the virus are still underway.

The outbreak of novel coronavirus is believed to have begun in the city of Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province in China, in early January. On December 31st, 2019, Chinese officials reported dozens of cases of aggressive pneumonia in Hubei. A week later, the disease was reclassified as a “novel coronavirus” – a suggestion that the disease was unlike any preexisting medical illness. Several days later, on January 11th, this “novel coronavirus” claimed its first victim, a 61-year old man, in a central Wuhan hospital. By January 20th, there were confirmed cases in Japan, Thailand, and South Korea; the World Health Organization released a report soon after, warning of the virus’ proclivity for rapid transmittance and worrying lethality. 

In response, the Chinese government took harsh but effective action. On January 23rd, just three weeks after the first reported cases of the coronavirus, the Chinese government placed the entire city of Wuhan – which is home to over 11 million inhabitants – under quarantine. No one was allowed entry, and no one was allowed to exit. In the following weeks, the Chinese government took aggressive action to limit the mobility of Chinese civilians all across China; Beijing was placed on lockdown, with restrictions on the ability for people to leave their houses. Schools were canceled, public transportation was shut down, and non-essential businesses were forced to close. In totality, nearly 760 million people living or working in China were ordered to remain in their houses. While restrictions are still in place today, the limitations have eased, allowing people greater freedom and autonomy in their day-to-day lives.

While China’s response may have seemed authoritarian to those on the outside, it was relatively effective in containing the spread of the contagious virus. At the height of the virus’ spread, thousands of new cases were reported daily. Now, that figure is down to just a few dozen per day. The crisis is certainly not over in China, but the peak of the virus was successfully limited by the action taken by the Chinese government.

Similarly, the Singaporean government’s response to the coronavirus has been largely effective at limiting the spread of the illness. After the announcement of the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Singapore, the country’s Prime Minister publicly declared that any treatment relating to the virus would be free. Moreover, the government took actions to limit public gatherings and invested heavily to ensure that there would be sufficient numbers of testing kits available to healthcare officials, such that health organizations within Singapore would have a better understanding of the situation. As a result, the number of new, reported cases in Singapore per day have dropped below 100.

Other countries, however, have been far less efficacious in their response to the pandemic. In Iran, government efforts to conceal the true number of confirmed cases, and the Iran government’s restrictions on the freedom of the media, have led to a crisis. Multiple high-ranking officials in the Iranian government have died as a result of catching the coronavirus, and other high-profile figures have been afflicted by the illness. While the Iranian government has claimed that there are under 10,000 cases of confirmed coronavirus within the Iranian state, an independent report by researchers at the University of Toronto estimated that there are well over 580,000 cases of coronavirus in Iran. A different study guessed that the true number of coronavirus cases in Iran may exceed 5 million. Indeed, nearly 10% of the members of the Iranian Parliament have caught the coronavirus.

One might guess that, in the face of this impending crisis, the Iranian government would take concrete and hard action to mitigate the spread of the virus. On the contrary, Iranian health officials have publicly stated to Iranian media organizations that the coronavirus is an “American hoax” meant to dissuade Iranian voters from turning out to the snap elections to fill the spots of deceased Iranian political representatives. Ironically, an Iranian deputy health official who ridiculed the virus as being overhyped and falsified by the West later caught the virus and was hospitalized for multiple days. Overall, little action has been taken to limit the spread of the virus, and experts at the World Health Organization predict that the trajectory of the virus in Iran is headed for disaster.

Similarly, the current situation in Italy highlights the devastating ramifications of a delayed or inefficient government response. More than 2,500 Italian citizens have died of the virus since the country’s first confirmed case in February; of those deaths, over 300 of them were reported in just the past 24 hours, as of Tuesday. Over 31,000 Italians have been infected with the virus; as of Monday, Italy has been the hardest-hit country of any member of the European Union. The Italian government’s delayed response to the crisis was underscored by the failure of Italian officials to attain a sufficient number of COVID-19 testing kits; as a result, Italian hospitals and healthcare clinics have been massively overburdened, as those suffering from the virus have faced a shortage of hospital beds and a lack of medical supplies.

Of great concern to very many Americans is that the U.S. government’s response to the crisis has been eerily similar to that of the Italian government. Ashish Jha, a leading researcher at the Harvard Global Health Institute, has gone as far as to posit that America’s response to the crisis has been “much, much worse than almost any other country that's been affected.” Of primary concern to health officials like Jha is the lack of testing capacity in the United States. Indeed, Jha points to the fact that, as of Tuesday, Vietnam – Vietnam! – tests more people per day for coronavirus than the U.S. has tested in the totality of the pandemic – in other words, Vietnam can test more people for COVID-19 in a single day than the United States has tested in the past two months. Ultimately, there is a great degree of uncertainty as to the future of the pandemic, but the lessons of the past several months are clear: countries which respond quickly and rapidly are rewarded, and those that do not, suffer.

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