Let me be clear I am not one of these so-called ‘COVID idiots’ or ‘anti-vaxxers’ who either belittle the threat that COVID-19 poses or espouse conspiracy theories about vaccines developed to treat it. To me, there is no doubt that COVID-19 is an extremely dangerous virus, which we can only take lightly at our peril. My purpose in writing this piece is not to diminish the threat it poses but to examine whether mismanagement of this deadly pathogen has exacerbated its impact.
At the time of writing according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there have been 101,561, 219 cases of COVID-19 globally and 2,196,944 deaths. Was this inevitable? The answer in a word is no. Putting aside the possibility that the virus need not have left China, some governments have reacted swiftly and smartly to the menace, mitigating its impact and kept death levels at a minimum whilst others appear to have drastically mismanaged their response leading to catastrophic levels of deaths and cases.
There is perhaps no better example of this than our very own government. As it stands the UK has the highest numbers of deaths in Europe-over 100,000-and one of the highest per capita in the World. 10 years of Tory austerity left this country dangerously ill-prepared for a pandemic of this nature; there had been cuts to beds, nurses, no strategy was visible and basics such as PPE were in short supply.
Further, in the early days, PM Johnson who has a habit of acting at the last minute missed vital Cobra briefings on the topic and with the likes of Cummings in his ear flew in the face of scientific advice by deciding to pursue a ‘herd immunity’ strategy. Major events like the Liverpool vs Atletico Madrid football match and the Cheltenham festival were allowed to proceed facilitating the spread of the virus.
With deadly pathogens like COVID-19 time is of the essence, every day and every week is crucial; hesitation can allow it to spread uncontrollably with deaths to follow. Once it became clear that herd immunity was a misnomer the government eventually decided- in the main due to almost unbearable pressure on the NHS- to impose a lockdown: 14 days after Italy. Death rates soon went up to approx. 1000 a day in hospitals alone. In some cases, the government sent elderly residents back to care homes after they had been treated in hospital (!).
After a couple of months of lockdown and a ‘flattening of the curve’ restrictions were lifted during the summer. At this point, the chancellor decided it would be a good idea to encourage people to support restaurants by an ‘eat out to help out’ campaign. As the New Statesman points out:
“Last summer, when new daily Covid-19 cases fell as low as 352, the UK government could have pursued a strategy of elimination, as the Asia-Pacific countries have done. But it instead told diners to “Eat Out to Help Out”, implored workers to return to offices, and allowed its borders to remain open for summer holidays. Having been warned by scientists in July of the possibility of a significant new Covid-19 variant in winter, the government helped create the conditions for it to thrive.”
Other spectacular failures have been the development of an ineffective test and trace system and allowing people to mix over Christmas 2020. It is no surprise therefore we find ourselves in our third lockdown with record daily death rates and record daily case rates.
The US’s response under Trump seems to be in a league of its own in terms of incompetence. In the early phases Trump downplayed the threat saying it was ‘under control’ at one point even suggesting like his friends at Fox News that it was a hoax made up by the democrats. As the virus spread and more and more died, he ignored advice from esteemed scientists such as Dr Anthony Fauci and instead touted suspect remedies such as Hydroxychloroquine recommended by his friends. He like Johnson prioritised the economy either locking down late and allowing the virus to spread or opening up too early. It was not long before he lost control with as it stands over 400 thousand Americans losing their lives; more than in its wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
In Brazil, we have seen a similar story. Another ‘strong man’ President in Bolsonaro not taking the threat seriously. He said ‘all of us are going to die one day…. there is no point running away from it, from reality. We have to stop being a country of sissies.’ With such an attitude it was no surprise he caught COVID himself (is it mere coincidence that Bolsonaro, Johnson and Trump caught COVID-19?). He has interfered in robust state-level responses to fight the virus, prioritised the economy and offered no clear strategy to tackle the menace. Unsurprisingly therefore Brazil has had over 200 thousand deaths and nearly 8 million cases. In India, an ill-considered lockdown where workers in the city were either transported or made their way back to rural villages taking the virus with them- and an initially lax testing approach has led to over 150,000 deaths and a case rate at one point second only to the US.
Let us contrast this with countries who have been lauded as exemplary in their response. Even before a single case was discovered in New Zealand in February 2020 Prime Minister Jacinda Arden banned flights from China, then Iran and soon after a wholesale ban followed (the UK has never implemented such a ban) on non-citizens and non-residents (all residents and citizens had to undertake 14-day isolation). Then on March 25 with just over 100 cases and 0 deaths recorded New Zealand implemented a stringent nationwide lockdown-using the time to develop an effective test and trace system. Alas, it was no surprise when in June after 17 days of 0 transmission Jacinda Arden declared victory over COVID. As a consequence, New Zealand has had 25 deaths. To those who argue that New Zealand is small with only a population of 5 million- you can contrast this with Wales which has about the same size population and has had over 4,500 deaths.
Similarly, South Korea having learnt from earlier virus outbreaks was well prepared for a pandemic. Like New Zealand, its authorities acted swiftly and incisively putting in measures to control its spread before it became a crisis. The government acted fast to develop a comprehensive test, trace and isolate system. Utilising clear communication the authorities were able to gain the public’s trust and their compliance. Consequently, South Korea with a population of approx. 50 million has had less than 1500 deaths. Countries like Japan, Singapore, Thailand, China, and Veitnam have also been able to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 immensely keeping deaths rates either low or to a minimum.
As this brief survey suggests, whilst every country is unique there are vital lessons that can be learnt and shared. Incisive leadership is clearly pivotal as is clear communication. Swift action, to tackle the virus before it becomes a crisis is crucial as is prioritising health outcomes. Early lockdowns and effective test, trace and isolate systems are also vitally important as is a clear strategy: ideally a 0 Covid one.
Countries like ours where the leaders have dithered, responded late, prioritised the economy have seen COVID-19 spread violently resulting in disproportionately high death rates. Of the 2 million-odd that have died so far nearly a million have died in the 4 countries mentioned above; suggesting that incompetence is as much of a killer as is COVID. Poor leadership-often from putative ‘strongmen’ leaders-has turned what was a profoundly serious and manageable problem into both national and global catastrophes. Let us only hope that in in the interests of saving lives vital lessons are learned.