Across the world, government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have diverged drastically from one another. Globally, as of March 29th 2020, there was 684,652 confirmed cases, 32,112 deaths and 142,618 recoveries. But what are the stories behind these figures and how do they differ from country to country?
In December 2019, there were reports of a pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan, China. Momentarily, this was seen as a public health anomaly, but it has now culminated in the biggest pandemic of the last century. On the 30th January, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised the Chinese Communist Party’s response to the outbreak, ‘I will praise China again and again, because its actions actually helped in reducing the spread of the coronavirus to other countries.’ He continued, ‘China is doing is doing its best and that helps, and of course in addition to that, we call on all member states to also give that kind of attention, both politically and technically.’
What were the Chinese policies implemented in response to the pandemic that Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised?
By mid-January, the Chinese government had introduced harsh measures to control the virus. Primarily, stopping the movement of people in and out of Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, and in 15 others cities in the Hubei province. In a province of 60 million people, trains and flights were suspended, and roads were blocked with immediate effect.
Following these measures, several Chinese cities were put into lockdown and citizens told only to leave their homes for groceries or essential medical needs. According to The New York Times, 760 million people were isolated in their homes – half of China’s population.
A model simulation at the University of Southampton, UK, has shown that early detection and isolation prevented cases increasing by 67-fold. In result, China’s response prevented approximately 8 million cases by the end of February.
What countries have used the example of China in their response to the pandemic?
Success in Singapore, a country with 5.7 million people, has been accredited to imposing border controls, tracing known carriers, nation-wide testing and clear public messaging. Moreover, new infections have been attributed to returning travellers.
Additionally, Singapore has performed 38,000 tests, approximately 6,800 examinations per million population, which has kept their second wave of cases under control. Epidemiologists have conceded that wide spread testing allows for interventions and more informed public health policy. ‘Test. test, test,’ Adhanom Ghebreyesus advised countries at a press conference on the 16th March 2020.
‘Success in South Korea has been accountable to countrywide testing, rigorous contact tracing and immediate quarantining of potential carriers.’
Likewise, success in South Korea has been accountable to countrywide testing, rigorous contact tracing and immediate quarantining of potential carriers. As of the 19th of March, South Korea had conducted 64,600 tests. Further to this, in a country of 51.5 million people, there was 8,652 cases, 94 deaths, and now has a case rate in relative decline.
‘If everybody stays in their room and doesn’t go outside at all, which is the Chinese approach, then that also is very effective at cutting down transmissions,’ asserts Martin Hibberd, Professor of Emerging Infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. ‘But in the absence of that type of approach, I think identifying who is positive and making sure those are quarantined is clearly a very effective way.’
How can we compare the example of China, Singapore and South Korea to Europe?
On the 11th of March Italy went into lockdown, with the public only being allowed to leave the house for food or medical essentials. Moreover, the government enforced a strict policy on public congregations to control Covid-19, as it has ravaged the northern region of Lombardy and quickly spread to surrounding areas.
‘The Italian government and media have been criticised for alternating between alarmism and premature signals of a return to business as usual.”
As of the 29th of March, Italy has reported 10,779 deaths and continues to suffer one of the greatest global blows from the virus. Moreover, the Italian government and media have been criticised for alternating between alarmism and premature signals of a return to business as usual. A recent pilot of far-reaching testing from the University of Padua in the town of Vó, where Italy saw its first Covid-19 related fatality, the virus was eradicated in under 14 days.
Researchers Andrea Crisanti and Antonio Cassone asserted, ‘while we believe it is too late to enact this approach in a city such as Milan, where infections are out of control, there could still be time to do this in the UK before the crisis gets even worse.’ They argued, ‘the government could identify and isolate clusters, quarantine everyone affected, trace their recent contacts, and quarantine and isolate them, too – whether they had symptoms or not.’
Furthermore, on the 15th March, Spain closed down much like other countries in Europe around that time. The Spanish government’s response, and specifically Pedro Sánchez, has been widely condemned for having a late and clumsy response. ‘Spain will only have a handful of cases,’ said Dr Fernando Simón, the head of medical emergencies in Madrid, on the 9th February.
Despite this, on the 29th March there was a death toll of 6,528, with 78,797 confirmed cases. Moreover, it was reported by The Guardian that as of the 26th of March, protective clothing and tests were only just being sourced in a country that has a third of the hospital beds of both Austria and Germany.
What does this all mean for the UK?
On the 24th of March, the British government announced a UK wide lockdown; asserting that people can only leave the house for food, one bout of daily exercise, and essential work. Much like the Spanish government’s primary air of ambivalence, Boris Johnson claimed he was shaking hands with coronavirus patients. Subsequently, he has tested positive for coronavirus along with 19,522 confirmed cases on the 29th of March.
‘We had a choice early on in the UK’s trajectory to go down the South Korean path… instead, we watched and waited’
Further to this point, there has been 1,228 deaths in UK and the government is yet to introduce widespread testing – therefore, skewing mortality rate figures. Boris Johnson, and his scientific advisors’ Sir Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty, have been criticised by the World Health Organisation for their initial ‘herd immunity’ strategy and for not immediately banning large-scale gatherings or closing schools. Additionally, the UK government has been condemned for failing to sign up to the EU ventilator scheme, as well as the ongoing issues of frontline NHS staff failing to be tested as well as not being provided with sufficient protective equipment.
Professor Devi Sridhar of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh commented, ‘we had a choice early on in the UK’s trajectory to go down the South Korean path of mass testing, isolating carriers of the virus (50% of whom are asymptomatic), tracing all contacts to ensure they isolate as well, and at the same time taking soft measures to delay the spread.’ She asserted, ‘instead, we watched and waited, and whether it was academic navel-gazing, political infighting, a sense of British exceptionalism, or a deliberate choice to minimise economic disruption over saving lives, we have ended up in a position where we are now closer to the Italy scenario than anticipated.’