How Other Countries Are Coping with the Pandemic

By Angus Gillespie

Canadians have been inundated with constant news and business information with respect to how the country is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and plans to overcome both the medical and economic obstacles, simultaneously.

The toll in this country has been huge, and it’s by no means over yet. As of publication there were more than 131,000 cases of COVID-19, with 9,141 deaths and 116,000 who’ve recovered. The projected cost of the various programs put in place by the federal government to support Canadians and businesses during the tough economic crisis is now approaching $380 billion.

But how does Canada’s response and recovery plans compare to what is happening in other countries. Are we ahead or behind the curve on an international gradient?

Headlining a sizable percentage of positive news has been the way in which New Zealand has handled the pandemic. In March, when the COVID-19 crisis took a strong foothold in many countries, New Zealand immediately banned gatherings of more than 100 people in spite of the fact there were only eight recorded cases of the coronavirus at the time. Medical experts believe it was the fast reactionary response to a pending crisis that largely helped the country to avoid a much larger outbreak in the following months.

Leading New Zealand’s plan has been its Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Prior to the pandemic, it’s doubtful too many people outside of that country would have known who she was or what she stood for, but that has all changed now. Ardern ordered the borders be closed and lockdown measures were immediately put in place. The result was having zero infections within three months. While those numbers are truly remarkable it should also be noted that being a separate island certainly didn’t hurt in the ability to contain the virus. It’s much the same for Australia, Iceland or any other island that is geographically isolated from other nations.

As strict as New Zealand was out of the gate there are countries that were far more lenient in the early stages of the crisis and some had greater success than others, which has only served to mystify the experts. Japan and Sweden enacted very few restrictions on their citizens but were essentially able to keep flat curves throughout the summer months. Brazil also began with a very lacklustre approach and while the virus seemed to keep its distance for quite some time, it eventually hit the South American nation with a vengeance, so much so that there have been calls for criminal charges being brought against some of the highest-ranking members of the government.

Reporting Figures

Argentina and India allegedly imposed strict measures early on, yet they failed in being able to contain the virus. Why the difference? Well, that is why the word “allegedly” needs to be used. What is written on paper as a rule, regulation or law can often be far different than what is actually imposed by policing forces in the real world.

In addition to possible lax abilities or a willingness to penalize people and businesses for swaying off course, there is also the issue of honesty coming from reporting governments. Countries such as China and Iran hardly elicit trustworthy auras, and with good cause. Both have been repeatedly caught concocting outright lies about a number of issues over the years, so it’s doubtful they’d get the benefit of the doubt on COVID-19 reporting. Keep in mind the Chinese State government hid the severity of the coronavirus and its effects on Wuhan for quite some time. Had warnings been sent out earlier to the international community there is little doubt it would have given nations more time to prepare for the onslaught.

It’s believed Italy was one of the hardest-hit countries in terms of COVID-19 fatalities for several reasons. Firstly, the country does have a high-percentage of seniors, who would naturally be more vulnerable to infectious diseases. Secondly, there are virtually no retirement homes or nursing care facilities in Italy. Elderly relatives typically remain living with their families. It could mean four or five generations of a family all being together. Young children coming home from school could easily catch the virus. Children in their late teens or 20s would likely be out with friends, where they too could come into contact with the virus. While they almost always fully recover, passing the virus on to an elderly grandmother or grandfather could spell disaster for those seniors living in those multigenerational homes.

According to the latest statistics, Italy recorded 575 deaths per million people, which is one of the highest rates in the world.

In Russia, measures were applied when a municipality reached 100 confirmed cases or more. Stay-at-home orders were put in place and there were notable restrictions on public gatherings of any sort. Despite these directives from the central government, many Russians opted to ignore the orders and continued on with their everyday lives.

It would appear a sizable portion of Asia learned valuable lessons from the global SARS pandemic in 2003. Public health systems were fortified with many new medical procedures and illness prevention programs. An incredible amount of early testing for the coronavirus was conducted in countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea. It was that early testing that helped keep the virus contained as best as possible. It wasn’t uncommon for a number of Asian countries to report daily cases in the single digits and such remains the case today.

It seems the countries that responded best to combatting the virus crisis was those that managed to get the most buy-in from citizens. Largely the messaging was about being kind to your friends, families and neighbours and being careful for them. It seemed to be an excellent approach. Those countries that took a more selfish approach of “I’ll be fine” tended to struggle more. While it’s true the younger adults that insisted on attending packed beaches in Florida and California all likely recovered – they could well have unwittingly passed the virus onto more vulnerable members of the community, who did not have the immune system to survive the invasion of the virus.

In-your-face messaging such as ‘Don’t do this or people will die’ simply does not resonate with a large percentage of the population, whether it’s Canada, the U.S. or anywhere else in the world. The messaging must focus on how complying with the rules and showing compassion means other people’s lives can be saved.

The Density Factor

Countries that have cities with higher concentrations of people in small geographic areas also face the obvious challenges of trying to comply with social distancing requirements. Living in a high-rise condominium tower in a large city means it’s next to impossible to be able to go from a higher floor to the ground without having to share an elevator with others. Yes, restrictions can be put in place to limit the number of people allowed in at one time, but that can quickly lead to frustrations with people left standing for long periods of time.

In Sweden, health officials did minimal testing for much of the spring and summer although there were protocols put in place to isolate the elderly and otherwise vulnerable people with compromised immune systems. There was a plea for the public to practice social distancing, and it was acknowledged to a large extent. If comparing Sweden’s data with the rest of the world, it has handled the pandemic exceptionally well. It just hasn’t returned the same type of positive results as its Scandinavian neighbours.

Unlike Italy, many Swedish people tend to live on their own once they become adults. That unto itself helps to promote a certain degree of isolation.

Japan may have gotten a jump on the entire crisis because a segment of its population has a tradition of wearing masks, so there was very little adjustment for their culture in that regard. Additionally, Japanese often bow when meeting a stranger as opposed to the west’s tradition of hand shaking.

Taiwan shares many similarities with Japan in terms of customs and cultural norms when it comes to hygiene and healthcare and it’s served the country well during the pandemic. As such, no severe lockdowns were necessitated in schools. Instead, if there was a flare-up in a certain region, then lockdowns were placed there until the curve was adequately flattened.

It’s true that a number of countries have been more impacted with deaths than the United Kingdom, there has been an ongoing concern about Great Britain’s response to the pandemic. Among the most worrisome aspects has been the confusing messaging coming from the government. The four nations of the UK are known to be at each other’s throats over seemingly mundane issues, but this has elevated the unrest to new levels.

In England, employers are telling staff that it’s safe to return to work. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been accused of passing the buck onto employers. Johnson himself had a rather serious health scare after contracting COVID-19, where he had to be hospitalized for quite some time. He was viewed by many as being far too cavalier about the adverse health impacts he’d face as he continued on with his daily routine.

“Eat Out to Help Out” is a national program aimed at getting restaurants back on their feet as the UK’s furlough scheme comes to an end. Throughout August, people dining out from Monday to Wednesday are to be offered a 50% discount, limited to £10 ($13) per person, and not including alcoholic drinks.

Johnson himself warned that “the risk is starting to bubble up again,” on the continent, adding: “I’m afraid you are starting to see in some places the signs of a second wave of the pandemic.”

Schooling in the UK has also gone through major adjustments, much like Canada.  After months of remote learning, many parents are desperate to send their youngsters back into the classroom.

To date there have been just less than 42,000 coronavirus deaths in Great Britain. Worldwide the figure has climbed beyond 890,000.

Across English Channel in France, just less than 31,000 people have succumbed to the virus, which was confirmed to have reached France in January. French President Emmanuel Macron has faced a litany of criticism, not unlike most of his other global contemporaries.

As of the start of September, France has reported 293,000 confirmed cases with nearly 31,000 deaths.

School children went back to school at the beginning of the month, and as of publication there had been no negative outbreaks of the virus. But such has not been the case within the general public, where the numbers of infections have risen significantly – so much so that there has been talk the government may impose new lockdown measures on fears a second wave could be forthcoming.

North America

Both Canada and the U.S. both have strong federal infrastructures while at the same time having a considerable amount of autonomy provided to provinces, territories and states due in large part because of the vast geographic regions that are covered. However, such secondary power can at times be detrimental from a nationalistic point of view as it often leads to discourse regarding the best solutions for each individual region. Every province has had to deal with its share of outbreaks with the virus and as such each provincial government had expectations of handling the crises their way.

The independent approach in Canada has led to several different plans being released in terms of opening up from the extended lockdown periods. Quebec, for example, has publicly changed the dates for reopening its schools on several occasions. While the reasons may well be valid in each case, it creates a great deal of consternation for citizens who have to decide whether or not it’s safe to send their children to school.

It may be a bit stereotypical, and even outdated, but Americans typically seem to be somewhat more defiant and untrusting of their government, regardless of whether it’s red or blue. But when the federal government is red, dealing with blue state governments can easily go off the rails. We’ve seen no shortage of that when U.S. President Donald Trump goes at it with such people as New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.

It becomes very confusing for the public to know who and what to believe. In the U.S., there is the president and his advisors saying one thing and the individual state governors and senators saying another. When there are inconsistencies it is only human nature to select the path that best suits an individual’s values.

Developing Countries

The pandemic has hit many developing countries especially hard, and they presently report the fastest-growing infection numbers in the world. Such countries lack infrastructure, medical expertise, equipment and medicine in what would best be described as very fragile health systems. There is also the issue of population density in some of the larger, underprivileged countries. Where there are many people, the virus can spread far more easily and often does. Invoking any type of social distancing in these types of cities is next to impossible.

It is true that some countries seem to have handled the pandemic better than others, but with so many differing factors, it is often impossible to simply cut and paste what the successful country did and expect it to work in another country due to vastly different circumstances, most of which cannot be changed.

Some medical experts believe that the world is definitely going to experience a so-called second wave of the virus. Others are less certain and so that leaves everyone waiting to see what happens next. All we can really do is be as vigilant as possible regarding social distancing, regularly use sanitation products and otherwise be careful as we move through a year like none of us have ever experienced before.

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