It’s June, and the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic has now shifted to the Americas, according to the World Health Organization. As the world transitions into the next stage of the global pandemic, now is the time to reflect on which countries handled the initial outbreak response better than others—both as an example for other countries to follow and to gauge which countries have best positioned themselves for whatever comes next. In that spirit, the team at Eurasia Group developed a methodology to assess key country* responses across three areas: healthcare management, political response, and financial policy response. These are the standouts… with an honorable mention thrown in as well.
Neighbors and front-line states: Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea
Taiwan (443 cases; 7 deaths)**
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.
Singapore (38,965 cases; 25 deaths)
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.
South Korea (11,902 cases; 276 deaths)
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.
New Zealand (1,504 cases; 22 deaths)
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?
Australia (7,276 cases; 102 deaths)
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
Canada (98,645 cases; 8,035 deaths)
The only entry from North America you’ll find on this list… and the responses between the Canadian and American federal governments to Coronavirus could not diverge more. Of course, this is not an entirely fair comparison, as healthcare systems and federalized powers differ between the two neighbors. Be that as it may, it’s hard not to conclude that Canada’s universal, publicly-funded approach to healthcare isn’t better suited for handling a global pandemic.
Even in things that are potentially comparable between the U.S. and Canada—say, public messaging coordination around the virus between health agencies and national and local governments, or monetary support of international efforts to cooperate on pandemic responses—Canada is faring much better. And a critical component of that has to do with not letting the pandemic response be seized by partisan politics, relying on science to guide the healthcare responses instead (it remains to be seen if the same will hold true for subsequent economic stimulus measures).
Some academics contend that it was Canada’s experience (and more specifically, its failures) with SARS almost 20 years ago that better prepared them for this current pandemic—that experience convinced many Canadians that the federal government has a critical role to play in health care, which before had been the responsibility of the provinces, and the country spent the last decade-plus finding ways to integrate the two. Combine that with significant fiscal and monetary measures taken by Canada (one of the richest countries in the world, and one that values social safety nets at that), those looking towards North America for global leadership in these trying times would probably do well to train their sights a little higher.
Honorable mention: Germany (186,522 cases; 8,752 deaths)
Germany’s response to the virus is held up as a model within Europe, reflecting a measure of good luck as well as its strong starting position. The country was spared the early surge in cases that neighbors Italy and Spain saw, and its quick containment efforts (including widespread testing, extensive public communication and transparency) received broad public support. With plenty of hospitals and intensive care beds, it was able to bend the curve. And it also has helped that, for the most part, social distancing guidelines seem to have been observed.
The government’s fiscal effort initially fell short of what some had hoped given its substantial fiscal space, but markets have been impressed by its decision to amend budget rules and adopt a substantial package of measures, and more recently German support for novel pan-European pandemic support mechanisms has changed the shape of European policy forever. It is hard to give full credit to the leading country in Europe when the virus exposes, and in many respects intensifies, pre-existing European cracks and frictions. Europe’s rule and standard-setting ability is getting weaker over time on a number of fronts, but against the dysfunction of the world, Germany has handled the crisis well, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is a major reason why.
Small is Beautiful
Iceland (1,807 cases; 10 deaths)
When people talk about the critical importance of testing, Iceland is a clearest example. Following on the heels of its first detected cases by early March, Iceland quickly instituted a broad (and free) testing and contact-tracing regime to identify and isolate Covid-patients, with such good results (just 10 people have died from coronavirus; seven were above the age of seventy) that they were able to avoid a total shutdown and had schools, museums and some businesses begin reopening by the middle of April once the case numbers were firmly in decline. It helps if you’re a country of just 364,000 people, but even then Iceland punched above its weight—it had the highest per-capita testing rate worldwide.
The initial rounds of government stimulus did not have the same levels of direct new government spending compared to the economic firepower unleashed by others, but then again, neither has the economic devastation been nearly as bad. The full-scale of the economic hit will be revealed alongside tourism numbers on which Iceland is highly dependent, but for now, Iceland remains one of the better stories.
UAE (40,507 cases; 284 deaths)
Making this list is hard; making this list while also taking part in a global oil price war is even harder, but the United Arab Emirates have managed it. They’ve done so by adopting stringent social distancing measures (lockdowns + curfews, even banning public Eid Al Fatr prayers and celebrations) and aggressive disinfection cleaning campaigns, helping limit the total deaths from coronavirus to less than 300 despite having their first confirmed case back on Jan 29th.
It’s helpful that all COVID costs are covered by the government irrespective of insurance status; more questionable is their decision to levy $5,500 fines on anyone who shares any medical information on social media that doesn’t adhere to the government’s narrative, a useful tool for limiting both conspiracy theories… alongside other kinds of speech. In the end, this surveillance system helped ensure that initial lockdown measures were successful—the fines were high but the monitoring mechanism worked to dissuade violations. Its central bank has been particularly aggressive on the liquidity stimulus front (don’t forget that oil war, too) as well to provide some financial ballast. Taken together, the UAE coronavirus response ranks high, and it does so in spite all the other geopolitical distractions it has going on these days.
Beating expectations: a good start but challenges ahead
Greece (3,068 cases; 183 deaths)
For a country that was finally showing signs of economic emergence from its decade-long financial crisis, the pandemic could not have hit at a worse time. But there’s one major silver-lining: a decade of austerity cuts left Greece with a health infrastructure system unable to carry the weight of any significant coronavirus outbreak in the country. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis saw the writing on the wall, and didn’t hesitate—roughly three weeks after Greece recorded its first coronavirus case in late February, the entire country was in strict lockdown. What little resources the Greek state did have was directed to procuring more ICU beds and health workers. The result? Less than 200 COVID-related deaths. Recent polls show Mitsotakis’ New Democracy with a 20-point advantage over its next-closest political rival, an impressive showing given a decade of fractious politics that saw the country’s entire political spectrum upended by austerity politics. The country has since begun lifting lockdown, allowing Greeks to (mostly) resume daily life.
The hard part is still to come. The Greek economy is overwhelmingly dependent on tourism (accounting for roughly 20% of GDP and 700,000 jobs all told), and restarting the Greek economy means restarting tourism…which also means restarting the possibility of another coronavirus outbreak. The government is attempting to devise a system that will allow tourists to still travel to the country while keeping the risk of the virus spread low (a critical component of which is only allowing travelers from low-case countries in the initial days of the tourist season), but this is new territory for everyone. And given the state of the global economy, it is far from clear that the money and demand for a typical Greek summer vacation—from either foreigners or Greeks themselves—will be there. The next few months will be critical for Greece on multiple fronts, but that shouldn’t detract from what it’s managed to accomplish so far.
Argentina (24,761 cases; 717 deaths)
The most surprising entry on this list given that the country has triggered its ninth financial default. Argentina registered its first coronavirus fatality on March 7; by the time the government imposed a quarantine on March 20, the world had caught up to the threat of the crisis and Argentina introduced strict social distancing measures and citizens heeded them well. As a result, its numbers look much better than most of its neighbors.
With the bipartisan cooperation of Argentina’s governors and congressional figures, the coronavirus management response of Alberto Fernandez’s new administration (which garnered the approval of 83 percent of Argentineans) has led to a boost in approval ratings. That domestic approval is critical as he fends off international investors and drives through the country’s ninth default.
Fernandez (alongside his vice president and former president Cristina Kirchner) are Peronists who subscribe to more leftist economic policies, and true to their ideological roots, offered low-paid workers a 10,000-peso lump sum to help them weather the crisis. But while their will to spend on domestic stimulus might be there, the reality of their government finances and looming debt repayments to foreign creditors constrains them considerably (their stimulus package amounts to just 4.9 percent of their GDP), and their bid to print more money may push them into inflation hell. Meanwhile, new cases in Buenos Aires are rising, and there is growing criticism of the strict lockdown (restrictions have been eased elsewhere). Nevertheless, their desire to take care of their people and the decision to divert resources from paying debt to do so—even at the risk of looming financial collapse—has been the best choice among bad alternatives.
*How we did it: For each category, we developed a rank ordering of effectiveness based on qualitative and quantitative criteria, then allocated countries to quartiles. For the health metric, we looked at mobility and testing performance (scaled by population); for governmental effectiveness, we used our analyst rankings of the authorities’ effort, the public reaction, and domestic and international coordination. Finally, in terms of economic policies, we scaled the magnitude of the fiscal and monetary effort, relative to the financing gap and starting position, adjusted for our teams’ view of the scope to respond (fiscal and monetary policy space).
**Covid cases and fatality figures are as of June 10th, and have been taken from the Johns Hopkins University tracker found here.