What countries combat the COVID crisis better than the US?
Other Nations Lead the Way
How China, South Korea, and Germany developed effective strategies for fighting COVID-19.
by Reese Erlich
May 26, 2020, The Progressive magazine
Nathaniel Brown never thought he would be grateful to see traffic jams in Shanghai. The brake-squealing, pollution-spewing jam-ups were the bane of every Chinese big city. But for Brown, an Australian-born teacher at an international school, the return of heavy traffic shows the country is recovering economically.
Restaurants, offices, factories, some tourist attractions, and schools reopened in Shanghai in April, just four months after the coronavirus was first reported. Volunteers check the temperatures of people entering office buildings and housing complexes. Everyone wears masks. People maintain physical distance wherever possible.
Life is slowly getting back to normal, Brown tells The Progressive, but “there are lots of limitations that will probably not go away for a while.” He hopes people’s everyday lives will be back on track by December. But no one knows for sure.
The government shut down virtually the entire country of 1.4 billion people and is now reopening, as are the economies of South Korea and Germany. No country has proven it can contain a second wave of the virus should one strike. But China, the first country to fight the virus, offers some unique lessons to the world.
Under China’s version of socialism, the state owns major banks, energy producers, and many manufacturing industries. It closed down and then started up production far more easily than the United States, with its thousands of separate, for-profit corporations, each fighting for market share and survival.
The Chinese government took a number of steps to reopen and jumpstart its economy. It provided easy credit to local and even internationally owned companies. It helped Chinese companies find markets to sell their goods. For example, the government bought medical equipment from private and state companies. China then sold or gave away these products to other countries. This boosted China’s image abroad and helped the economy at home.
China’s central government was also able to quickly redirect resources to the first virus hotspot, the city of Wuhan, including medical personnel and equipment. It was soon exporting protective medical gear and test kits to the United States.
The administration of President Donald Trump, on the other hand, took months to order private corporations to make medical equipment. Hospitals faced massive shortages many months into the crisis. U.S. dairy farmers dumped milk and farmers plowed under crops because it cost more to ship their products to food banks than to destroy them.
Even some U.S. political leaders saw the absurdity of the competition between the federal government, states, and hospitals to buy equipment. “You are using a free-market model in a public health emergency,” Kansas Governor Laura Kelly, a Democrat, told The New York Times, “and I’m not sure those two go together particularly well.”
How to fight epidemics is well known
Public health officials worldwide know how to fight epidemics. If doctors find someone with tuberculosis, for example, the patient is isolated at a hospital and treated with antibiotics. Public health staff track down all the patient’s contacts, test them for TB, and quarantine those with the disease. They then trace all of that person’s contacts in a continuous process that finally ends the outbreak.
The coronavirus and the disease it produces, COVID-19, present particular difficulties because of how quickly the virus spreads. On the other hand, it’s not as deadly as some other communicable diseases. If a country discovers an outbreak early enough, it can isolate entire communities and stop its spread.
Doctors in Wuhan told the World Health Organization about the new virus on December 31, 2019, but it took another three weeks for the government to impose a total quarantine. Local authorities minimized information about the virus, and initially insisted it couldn’t be transmitted between humans. One doctor who warned other medical professionals about the virus was forced to sign a statement recanting his claim. He later died of the disease.
In retrospect, those actions allowed the virus to spread well beyond Wuhan. But Beijing acted rapidly and decisively compared to the United States. California became the first state to impose stay-at-home rules on March 19, two months after doctors discovered the first U.S. case. Some states never instituted strict social distancing, stay-at-home orders. One such state, Arkansas, saw the pandemic spread.
On January 23, China’s central government prohibited travel in or out of Wuhan. All workplaces closed, and everyone stayed at home. Those with virus symptoms couldn’t leave their apartments or were sent to designated hotels. Neighborhood committees called juweihui enforced these rules.
“If people don’t comply, other people will try to persuade them,” says Andong Zhu, a professor of political economy at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He tells The Progressive, “If they don’t listen, community volunteers, workers, and even local officials, including police officers, will come.”
Most people followed the new regulations voluntarily. But conflicts inevitably arose. At their home in Shanghai, Brown and his wife received a present from a neighbor who had lived in an infected county. Another neighbor complained and took photos.
“My wife got a warning to keep distance from people,” he says. “If it happened again, then she and our whole family would have to start our fourteen-day [quarantine] again.”
The shutdown in Wuhan ended on April 8. People began to travel in and out of the city. Factories and stores reopened in phases.
Fear of second wave
Chinese authorities, like those around the world, fear a second wave of the pandemic, either because some people may slip through the testing process or because they might enter from another country. In April, more than 200 new cases arose when Chinese travelers returned via a land crossing with Russia in northern China.
So China now requires residents to use a special mobile phone app to enter health information, note travel to infected areas, and keep track of any contact with infected persons. The app produces one of three color codes indicating health status. Workplaces, public transport, restaurants, and other institutions scan the color code to allow (or restrict) entry.
Government critics fear that the app could violate civil liberties and be used to track political dissidents. Since at least some of the information is entered without verification, however, its usefulness remains to be proven.
“I personally think it was a very clever idea to boost consumer confidence,” Brown says. “It also provides some health benefits to limit known spread, but it cannot be perfect.”
Whatever the world may think of the neighborhood committees and hi-tech tracking, China’s system definitely produced results.
As of May 18, China had reported nearly 83,000 coronavirus cases and more than 4,600 deaths, a number that held steady for weeks. The United States, a country with about one-fourth China’s population, had more than 1.5 million confirmed cases and more than 90,000 deaths.
China may have undercounted its casualties, as some have charged, but so have most countries, according to an analysis in The New York Times. People originally thought to have died from pneumonia or other illnesses were later found to have been infected with COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data suggests that the United States may have undercounted virus deaths by as much as 50 percent
Like China, other countries have responded to the coronavirus much more rapidly and effectively than the United States. Among the most successful was South Korea.
South Korean public health officials quickly identified the origin point of its COVID-19 outbreak. It started among members of the Shincheonji religious cult in the southern city of Daegu. More than 2,000 cases broke out in just ten days in February. Because China had already alerted the world to the existence of the coronavirus, Korean health officials were able to concentrate efforts on this hotspot.
Medical supplies and personnel poured into Daegu. The government established quarantine accommodations in government buildings and hotels. It closed schools, stores, and theaters but never implemented a Chinese-style shutdown. Fearing contagion, however, many people self-isolated.
“Everybody had masks on, including children,” recalls Anna Choi, a Korean American who was visiting family and friends in February during the height of the crisis. She says that while the government didn’t impose a lockdown, “people stayed home anyway. We didn’t visit one friend who we usually saw all the time. ‘It’s not polite to visit,’ he told me.”
Following its failures during previous pandemics, South Korea developed a sophisticated biotech industry able to quickly create, manufacture, and distribute coronavirus test kits. It invented “drive through” COVID-19 testing, which is both more convenient and safer. By widely testing, health officials were able to locate and isolate virus carriers. They had the political will and resources to carry out standard anti-pandemic procedures.
“It’s very important to get as many people tested as possible,” Choi says. “The government was on top of it.”
South Korea, with a population of fifty-one million people, mobilized in ways not seen in the United States. Choi knows one professor who put in a full day at a research lab and then worked on an assembly line at night to assemble test kits: “He had a PhD, but he was doing blue-collar factory work.”
The government also utilized South Korea’s extensive mobile phone and Wi-Fi networks. Text messages carried government alerts to the entire country. Using a person’s mobile phone, the government accessed credit card data, medical records, and location. That helped determine who came into contact with infected persons.
Because South Korea has a history of illegal government surveillance, the intrusive tracking of individuals raises concerns about its future use. But Choi says most Koreans seem to accept the use of these technologies to fight COVID-19.
Suppression of the pandemic was so successful that the country was able to hold parliamentary elections on April 15. Voters exercised physical distancing as they waited to cast their ballots. Temperatures were taken, and anyone with a fever was taken to an isolated voting area. A record 66.2 percent of eligible voters turned out. Parties supporting leftist President Moon Jae-in won with a decisive 60 percent of the vote, which was seen as vindication of his pandemic policies.
Within three months of its first COVID-19 case, the government of South Korea had flattened the curve with few new cases reported. It reopened not only factories and many offices but also gyms, churches, and bars. Koreans call their new normal “everyday life quarantine.” Everyone wears face masks, regularly scrubs with hand sanitizer, and is subjected to regular temperature checks. Sporting events take place without spectators, and robots dispense snacks at movie theaters.
As of May 18, South Korea’s COVID-19 numbers were holding steady at just over 11,000 reported cases and 262 deaths.
“We are creating a new set of standards and culture,” Kim Gang-lip, the nation’s vice health minister, said at a briefing. “Moving forward, we will inevitably have to change the way we meet others, work and study together, and even interact with our own family members.”
Whereas South Korea was more technologically prepared, Germany began the crisis with a far more robust social safety net than exists in the United States. Germany mandates universal health care as part of the social security system. Wealthier individuals can buy private insurance. But everyone is covered, including the homeless.
The federal government also pays a portion of the wages of workers who would otherwise be laid off. The system of short-term work pays a minimum of 60 percent of the workers’ previous wages and mandates that the workers return to the same job when the crisis ends.
But, as in the United States, the state governors and industrial groups criticized the federal government for not reopening the economy quickly enough. While Germany didn’t impose a stringent shutdown like China or the intense monitoring of South Korea, it still drew plenty of complaints.
Bettina Gaus, a political correspondent for die tageszeitung, a cooperatively owned, progressive daily in Berlin, says she was not allowed to visit her eighty-nine-year-old mother who lives in an assisted living complex. Her mother could leave the apartment, explained Gaus, but there were no open restaurants or cafés where they could meet. “We would have had to meet in the forest,” says Gaus with a chuckle.
But Germans generally accepted the restrictions, Gaus says, because politicians provided the public with transparent explanations. “Compared to Trump, German leaders are doing a good job,” she says. “But that’s a low bar.”
Germany initially faced shortages of masks, protective clothing, and testing kits. While German companies ramped up production, they still fell behind. One group of Berlin doctors, as a unique protest against the dearth of protective clothing, posed for nude photos, discretely covering key portions of their anatomies.
From the beginning, German authorities reached a consensus to close almost everything except essential services. Factories were allowed to stay open, but some had to shut down due to a lack of parts. Infections began to decrease after the government closed schools and day-care centers and required many office employees to work from home.
By mid-April, Germany had flattened the curve, and new infections declined. Officials in various states began to reopen the economy. People were able to visit stores, car dealerships, museums, libraries, and exhibitions. Worshippers could once again go to churches, synagogues, and mosques, though everyone is still expected to wear masks and maintain physical distance.
German officials took a step-by-step approach in the hopes of avoiding a second wave of infections. The government continues to ban people from attending major sporting events, public celebrations, concerts, and festivals, until at least August 31. As of May 18, Germany had recorded about 8,100 deaths, less than one-tenth of the U.S. tally.
Despite getting a head start on reopening, which has raised fears about a second wave, the German economy faces serious recovery problems. The German government projects a 6.3 percent contraction in its gross domestic product this year, but some economists say even that figure is overly optimistic.
Pandemic long-term impact
Eventually, scientists will discover drugs to treat COVID-19 and/or a vaccine to prevent it. People around the world will recover, and the medical impact will recede.
But like wars and major terrorist attacks, the 2020 pandemic will have a political impact well into the future. Today’s young people will tell their grandchildren about how they survived the Great 2020 Pandemic, the Wuhan lockdown, and a crazy President named Donald J. Trump.
They’ll talk about how they watched the U.S. empire decline in real time. They will recount how the world’s most powerful military power, with massive economic resources, couldn’t protect the health of its own people, let alone those in other countries. Whatever credibility and admiration America had abroad faded as people saw videos of patients dying in overcrowded hospitals and images of virus-infected workers in meatpacking plants.
“In the past, Chinese people loved the United States, wanted to visit, and liked U.S. products,” Brown says. Now they see the United States “as a declining world power trying to stay in power.”
Gaus says the pandemic crisis will end “globalization as we know it.” Western countries will no longer rely exclusively on Asia to manufacture vital medicines and medical equipment. Business trips will be reduced because “they turned out not to be as necessary as we thought.”
“We are seeing the end of the United States as the last remaining superpower, and not just because of Trump,” she says. The United States’ failure to invest in education, health, social welfare, and infrastructure is now laid bare. “The state is failing to function.”
Certainly, when it comes to fighting the pandemic, the United States has not done nearly as well as some other countries. Watching the still-climbing death toll gives chilling new meaning to Trump’s slogan, “America First.”
Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, “Foreign Correspondent,” appears regularly in The Progressive.