How countries respond to a pandemic: from the competent to the stupid

What’s the best way to respond to a pandemic? I’m asking out of purely academic interest, you understand, but a study of how twenty-seven countries responded to the pandemic–

Oh, hell, let’s drop twenty-two of those. Life’s complicated enough, and the article I’m relying on already dropped them for us, but let’s pretend we had a choice. We’ll look at two that handled it well and three that blew it. It’s not in depth, but it’s interesting all the same. 

The two? South Korea and Ghana–which is to say, one that I knew about and one that I didn’t. Ghana hasn’t been in any of the news that I’ve seen until now.

South Korea acknowledged the threat in January 2020, encouraged people to wear masks, and introduced a contact-tracing app. They avoided a lockdown. 

Let me quote the article here: “Each change in official alert level, accompanied by new advice regarding social contact, was carefully communicated by Jung Eun-Kyung, the head of the country’s Centre for Disease Control, who used changes in her own life to demonstrate how new guidance should work in practice.”

In other words, they had a human being leading them through it and acting like a human being. Yes, the advice changed over time, but it wasn’t rocket science.

Then Ghana comes in and ruins my theory that politicians should get out of the way and let the public health people handle public health communications. The president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, “took responsibility for coronavirus policy and explained carefully each measure required, being honest about the challenges the nation faced. Simple demonstrations of empathy earned him acclaim within his nation and also around the world.”

One of the things he said resonates strongly with me, because it’s the opposite of the approach Britain took: “We know how to bring the economy back to life. What we don’t know is how to bring people back to life.”

On the other hand, we have Brazil, India, and the UK, which gave out inconsistent messages about the threat, downplayed the dangers, made impulsive decisions, and ended up with high on the list of deaths per capita. 

In Britain, Boris Johnson prioritized the economy over controlling the virus, and before he came down with Covid himself he was tap dancing through hospitals and shaking hands with infected people. Against all public health advice.

If I were giving out public health advice, I’d advise him not to tap dance. Certainly not in public.

For clarity: I made up the tap dancing in an effort to be funny. It’s been a long week here. Sometimes the jokes work and sometimes they don’t.

A rare relevant photo: Fast Eddie, following the sleep experts’ advice. I know, you haven’t gotten to that part yet, but it’s in here somewhere.

Britain has one of the highest per capita death rates.

Yay us! We’re the envy of the world.

A year into the pandemic, Jair Bolsonaro (who also managed to catch Covid) is still criticizing attempts to control the disease and at the beginning of March told Brazilians to stop whining about it. Well let that stand in from his approach from the beginning.

Brazil’s death rate is behind Britain’s and the US’s, but it’s high.

And in India, Narendra Modi at least took the virus seriously, but he called a lockdown with four hours notice, doing nothing to support people who would be out of work and desperate. That set off a mass migration of the poorest laborers, who left the cities for their home villages. The choice was to was walk home or starve. Those who were carrying the virus spread it. 

India has an impressive death rate too.

The article’s summary is that countries that politicized the virus, made last-minute decisions, or were stupidly optimistic had the most cases and the most deaths. 

They don’t say “stupidly.” They’re professionals. They can’t. 

 

News from assorted scientists

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention, but with some U.S. states dropping their mask mandates, it might be worth mentioning a study that shows a correlation between wearing masks and a lower number of Covid cases and deaths.

I know. I’m shocked too. Who’d have imagined wearing masks would cut transmission of an air-borne virus? 

The same study also shows that opening restaurants correlates with a rise in the number of cases and deaths. Probably because it’s hard to eat without taking your mask off. 

The study has its limits. It’s hard to isolate a single cause when a lot of factors are bouncing around in the dark and smashing into each other. But we got where we are by not listening to health information that didn’t make us happy. We might outta listen to this.

*

A different study–a small one–suggests that it’s safe for healthy people to wear face masks when they exercise indoors–even when they do vigorous workouts. Which is good to know, although I’m still trying to figure out why anyone thought it wouldn’t be. If we were being asked to stuff masks down our throats and up our noses, I’d expect problems, but unless I’m seriously misunderstanding the situation, no one’s asking that.

Masks did have a small effect on the workouts–they reduced people’s peak oxygen uptake by 10%.

“This reduction is modest,” one of the researchers said, “and, crucially, it does not suggest a risk to healthy people doing exercise in a face mask, even when they are working to their highest capacity. While we wait for more people to be vaccinated against COIVD-19, this finding could have practical implications in daily life, for example potentially making it safer to open indoor gyms.

“However, we should not assume that the same is true for people with a heart or lung condition. We need to do more research to investigate this question.”

*

Yet another study reports that spacing out the first and second doses of a vaccine does reduce the number of Covid cases in the short term but that in the long term–well, basically no one knows what impact it’ll have. It’s not clear how long immunity from a single dose will last or how (as they put it) robust it’ll be. If the immune response after one dose isn’t as robust as it would be after two, it could increase the size of a later outbreak. 

And then there’s the possibility that people with partial immunity could increase the odds that the virus will mutate in ways that allow it to escape the vaccine.

Isn’t this fun?

Don’t loose sleep over this yet. They’re only raising possibilities.

*

Still, though, if you’re feeling paranoid about Covid, sleep experts in Australia have reminded us all that sleep is essential to our immune systems.

Yeah, thanks, folks. We kind of knew that.

Just before I got vaccinated (or half vaccinated, since that’s the way Britain’s handling it) I read that to maximize the vaccine’s impact I should get a good night’s sleep beforehand. That was enough to guarantee that I didn’t. 

One of the many oddities of getting older has been that I–lifelong insomniac that I was–now sleep well. Except when someone tells me that I really need a good night’s sleep before some particularly important event. 

But never mind me. Sleep well. Your health depends on it. 

 

An update on Huge Ma

Remember Huge Ma, a New York programer who spent two weeks and $50 creating a free website, TurboVax, that would simplify the tangle of websites New Yorkers needed to negotiate to get a vaccination appointment? Well, he’s been overwhelmed with gratitude, with requests to set up similar sites in other places, and with so much traffic that the site’s buckling. 

I’m not sure what it means, specifically, when they say the site’s buckling, but when he created it he took shortcuts so he could get it working quickly.

I think that’s a trade-off that I would still make,” he said. “The response has been incredibly overwhelming. There’s been so much gratitude. Hundreds, thousands of emails from people who have gotten appointments through TurboVax, which is honestly kind of just mind-blowing, and humbling as well. . . .

“I would never have thought that I could have built something that has such tangible impact on other people’s lives.”

Other citizen-led sites have appeared around the U.S., but it’s very much hit and miss. “There is a huge need for tools like this,” Ma said. “But I’m just one developer who did a side project that went viral.”

Ma did suspend the site for a weekend to protest hate crimes against Asian Americans, which have increased recently. 

“While I have this platform,” he said, “as an Asian American myself I can do more than what is expected and highlight a group and an environment that needs changing.”

51 thoughts on “How countries respond to a pandemic: from the competent to the stupid

  1. I didn’t know about Ghana either. I’m surprised you didn’t include the US on the idiots list. Maybe since it is now one of the leaders in vaccination rates and much improved messaging from the new POTUS? You also did not mention the mutants. It is no a coincidence that most of the mutants are mutated in countries with idiots in charge. Brazilian, UK, California… Biden’s message that all countries need to be vaccinated rings true because of the mutant problem. Imagine a mutant that still takes 5 to 10 days to make people sick but, like Ebola, kills 99% of the infected! This is possible! This is why the world needs an reset on virus prevention, like using far UVC lights in all public places.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was leaning on one article, which picked out five countries for reasons that I’m sure made sense within the context of the study but wasn’t explained. The US could easily have been in there. So could, on the other side, New Zealand and Taiwan. I’m not sure when the study was done, but I’d guess long enough ago that recent US vaccination rates wouldn’t have weighed heavily–or possibly at all. And I absolutely agree about the danger of mutations and the need for a worldwide way of addressing this.

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  2. The tragedy of it is that the UK was rated one of the most well-prepared for a pandemic – admittedly, for varieties of flu, but the things that went wrong would have been the same for any infectious disease: largely ignoring the need to co-ordinate central government with *local* public health and NHS bodies, dogmatically outsourcing various key operations to often inexperienced and over-promising companies, running down stocks of necessary materials in the name of efficiency (and ignoring the need for effectiveness), and all the other failing shibboleths of A Certain Political Persuasion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hindsight is an exact science and we all have much to learn from this. After all it was June before the WHO changed its advice on wearing face masks. Over here, we have been in lockdown and under curfew since October and still our daily infection rate is around 30k :-(

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hindsight, I admit, does help. But so does a bit of sense. South Korea (and if memory serves, which is seldom does, Taiwan) had experience with SARS to help them focus on Covid and respond quickly. And you’re right about WHO–they were slow to respond and initially gave out some bad advice. But it does seem to me that if I could predict, with no public health or medical training and from the vantage point of my couch, that keeping the borders open and repatriating people from China was a really bad idea, surely someone with more background and authority could have figured that out. But Boris Johnson’s primary worry was the economy, and making the choices he did meant not only that a lot of people died but that the economy took a harder hit than it had to.

      Anyway, maybe we can do better next time. If we’re listening to ourselves at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m glad I didn’t know the thing about sleep before I had my jab. I’ve been sleeping terribly recently, partly because it gets lighter earlier, but also because it turns out that I was getting stressed about having the jab. Daft really, since it didn’t hurt (not much, anyway) and, aside from a sore arm for a few days, there were no side effects.

    Liked by 2 people

      • I wish our gouvernor here in Texas would learn from him, but – of course – that guy is “learning-resistent”. He “opnened” Texas agaun ast week: no more mask mandate and businesses can open at full capacity. I keep wondering if he was thinking of funeral homes.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yep, I’m in Texas, too. We’re still super worried about our electric costs for the week of the winter storms and now this. We live near Houston, but in a rural area. Out here no one is wearing masks anymore-i am!- but in the city lots of masks. Almost the same as before the mask mandate. I don’t understand why he didn’t wait 2-3 months longer on this issue but I’m sure it’s all politically motivated. Ugh.

          Liked by 3 people

          • I’m sure you’re right about it being politically motivated. If you can’t (or won’t, since not many politicians will stand up to big business) do anything about the electric bills (or the supply for the next storm–because 100-year storms are coming a lot more frequently), then you can crank everyone up about masks and make yourself look like you’re defending the little guy.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Exactly. The state’s done nothing about the electric situation at all. We’re on a co-op – it’s the only electric we can get out here in our rural area- and the company still doesn’t know what the charges are going to be. They’re telling us that it may take us all years to pay for this fiasco. There seems to be no relief or assistance on the horizon. And agreed, I think Abbott did this intentionally to distract. It’s all so ridiculous.

              Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesting and informative. That personal and empathatic leader approach, it is the best. Our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern (I’m from New Zealand) and our Health Minister were on tv daily before and during lockdown keeping everyone up to date, encouraging wearing masks and hand washing. Mostly they said: be kind; be safe. Be kind has become like a national mantra here. Our borders closed quickly. We set up quarantine accommodation. Of course too we had all of those nutters who prtested loudly and stupidly and ranted about conspiracy theories. We still are kept well informed: every. single, day. But our population is many millions less than yours. so it was way easier to implement everything. Glad that your Fair Isles are on the Up with the virus effect lessening. Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Around the world, a lot of people are looking to New Zealand and asking themselves, “Couldn’t we elect Ahern too?” I don’t think it works that way, but still–.

      A while back, I read something about public health messaging that basically said to do what NZ has done: Keep people informed. Keep the communication process human. Be honest with people as the information changes. Appeal to what’s best in people and don’t address your communications to the nutters, because just when people need to pull together it makes people think the restrictions aren’t working.

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  6. I suppose the US wasn;t mentioned because a) everyone is so sick of hearing about it – II) it’s worldwide knowledge and 3) BoJo did such a great job of following in Dear Leader’s footsteps.

    As Pit points out…the funeral home/tombstone cutters’ economy is flourishing. If someone closely related or loved by one of these bureaucrats – or better yet they themselves – would end up on a ventilator or patronizing one of above merchants, reversals would occur with dizzying speed,

    Liked by 1 person

  7. They did test the Oxford AZ with a longer gap between the vaccinations, just not the Pzifer one. I have had my 1st vaccination (Oxford AZ) which made me feel very ill for half the night and then rubbish for the next couple of days. It wont stop me taking the second vaccination. My husband (who has asthma) is still waiting for his date. I have a theory (based on absolutely nothing) that the AI is prioritizing menopausal women.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have no idea how they’re setting the priorities for vaccination, but it sounds like they’re using a very blunt instrument, not taking in the full range of vulnerabilities, including occupation, income (a powerful factor in this) and ethnicity (another one). I read about at least some people who’ve been told they’re medically vulnerable but who then aren’t made priorities for vaccination.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I don’t want to minimize the dangers of Covid and asthma, but one study that I saw did report no higher death rate. I’m summarizing, not necessarily accurately, but I seem to remember that they thought inhalers might be protective, and one kind of asthma (I don’t know what kind–it didn’t say) might be somewhat protective.

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  8. I would echo the people expressing surprise that you didn’t include the USA on the idiots list, but in this case (as too many people here seem to believe – incorrectly – the nation is in all things), the USA is exceptional. This country under Trump was so far out beyond any other nation in terms of covidiocy that it goes without saying. It’s a given that the USA is on top of the idiots list, even know, when Biden is actually leading and trying to get us out of this mess.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The list wasn’t mine, which is why the US wasn’t on it, and I don’t know how or why they chose to focus on the five countries they chose. I’m from the US myself–I’ve lived in Britain for 15 years now–and am painfully aware of how crazy it’s gotten over there. And how frightening.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. You were quite kind to the U.S. in your post. I think we are extraordinarily messed up. Biden appears to be making up for lost time and the rate of vaccination is steadily going up for now. But, as I’m sure you know, millions of Americans are still in denial that vaccination (along with mask-wearing) is crucial to getting on top of the coronavirus and all of its mutations. It’s hard to believe that people are this willfully ignorant but alas, they are.

    Glad to know about Ghana.

    Liked by 1 person

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