Which countries are the unsung coronavirus stars?

Parts of Eastern Europe and Africa are proving it's better to be smart than rich in the fight against COVID-19

A trophy.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Southeast Asian countries have been the star performers during the coronavirus pandemic. Countries like Taiwan, Vietnam, and Thailand have managed to contain their outbreaks almost entirely. Almost all Western nations, by contrast, have humiliated themselves. None have bungled things worse than the United States (with the possible exception of the U.K.), but France, Belgium, Spain, and Italy all had terrible outbreaks. Even Germany, which managed to keep mortality numbers low through a combination of advance preparation and aggressive response measures, did not do nearly as well as South Korea.

However, it is not only Asian countries that have so far done comparatively well. Many poorer or middle-income countries elsewhere in Europe and Africa have so far managed to avoid shattering outbreaks as well. It's worth considering what lessons might be learned from these neglected success stories.

Let's examine the global coronavirus map. Immediately it jumps out that Western Europe and the United States are the epicenters of the pandemic, with major outbreaks still gaining strength in Brazil, Russia, the Middle East, and India. Yet much of Central and Eastern Europe, most of Africa, Central Asia, and parts of South America are doing remarkably well. While the U.S. has recorded over 83,000 COVID-19 deaths at time of writing, Greece has just 152 deaths, Bulgaria 95, Croatia 91, Lithuania 50, and Slovakia 27.

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In Africa, Egypt and Algeria are the worst-hit thus far, with 533 and 507 deaths respectively. South Africa has 206. But nowhere else on the continent has recorded more than 200 official deaths so far. It's quite remarkable given the limited resources of almost all these countries, weak medical capacity, and the cramped conditions of most of its cities.

A few caveats are in order, of course. Poorer countries generally have less international travel, especially in Africa, and hence less exposure to infection from outside sources. Their populations are generally younger and hence less vulnerable to COVID-19. Some of their statistics are probably unreliable, given limited state capacity or corruption. Hotter temperatures and sunshine also seem to slow the spread of the disease somewhat — though not that much, as Brazil and Ecuador (over 12,000 and 2,300 deaths, respectively) prove. Still, cases have been recorded in every one of these countries for over a month, and they surely couldn't be hiding a gigantic pandemic. An uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak would kill thousands of people, and overwhelm hospitals. (Even the much-discussed example of Sweden, held up by lockdown opponents as an alternative approach, has 3,300 deaths, a higher per capita rate than the U.S.) It would be too obvious to miss, even in a dictatorship.

So these countries are certainly doing something right. It seems that by and large, they quickly implemented the same lockdowns, mask requirements, mass testing, contract tracing programs, and isolated quarantines that Taiwan has done, to the best of their abilities.

Indeed, many African countries have the same recent experience in pandemic control that Southeast Asian countries had with SARS. Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia were the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak a few years ago. They and neighboring countries had systems ready to go, and their populations were primed to take social-distancing and hygiene measures seriously. (China has also donated gobs of supplies to the continent.)

Non-Western Europe appears to be a somewhat different story. They did not have the same prior experience as West African nations, and their populations are not as young either. Though there is less international travel there than Italy or France, there is a lot more than most of Africa. Experts are still debating how they managed so well, but it seems that the region's governments simply got on top of things quickly, motivated in part by fear of their hospitals being swamped. They saw things going badly in China, listened to the World Health Organization warnings, looked at their generally fragile and cash-strapped health-care systems, and moved quickly while Italy, Spain, and the U.S. were dragging their feet.

Greece deserves special praise here. It is one of the prime tourism destinations in the world and, even though it wasn't peak vacation season when the pandemic struck, there were surely thousands of international travelers passing through in January and February. Its economy has also been strangled for a decade by austerity imposed by the Eurozone elite, and they've borne an enormous load of the refugee crisis coming from Syria and elsewhere in the region. Yet they successfully contained their epidemic far better than Germany — suffering less than 2 percent as many deaths thus far.

I would say the primary tentative lesson here is that pandemic control measures are challenging, but they are not that difficult or expensive. Even a quite poor country with its act together can manage it. It remains to be seen whether these nations will be able to manage keeping their economies in stasis for long enough to actually eradicate the virus and keep it down, but their early success raises the chances they will make it.

So next time we are running down President Trump's grotesque failure to deal with the pandemic, remember it's not just Taiwan or Norway that is exposing America's chauvinist boasting about itself as a bitter joke. Sierra Leone, Greece, and Croatia are also exposing America as the tenth-rate failure it is.

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