If the fight against the Covid-19 virus looks like war, it seems that each commander-in-chief of each war room has a different strategy.
How to come?
The enemy is the same, and each country has had about 18 months of the same experience fighting it.
Yet their battle plans differ so much.
What a difference ?
The Australian city of Sydney locked down parts of the city in June after several cases of the Delta variant were detected, and has since extended it, possibly until the end of next month.
Melbourne and Brisbane have taken a similar approach, despite Australia having had relatively few cases – just over 40,000, including 975 deaths.
Its approach has been one of the most hawkish in the world – even at one point preventing its own citizens abroad from returning home.
The UK, on the other hand, appears to be fighting a very different battle.
For over a month starting in June, I watched live on TV, with millions of people around the world, four major sporting events taking place there: the Wembley matches of Euro 2020, the quadrennial football competition among the best nations in Europe; Wimbledon tennis; the British Open, a major annual golf event; and the Formula 1 race at Silverstone.
The sporting action was world class and the competition breathtaking at times.
But most remarkable for me was the huge crowd in the stadiums, on the golf course and on the race track. Tens of thousands of people enjoying their new unmasked freedom, cheering on their teams and favorites.
During the month-long sporting celebration, the daily number of infections in the UK soared to more than 30,000 cases. But the government stuck to its plans to lift almost all restrictions and open up the economy.
Even larger crowds of up to 70,000 now fill the stadiums for the Premier League football matches, which kicked off this month.
Borders have opened up in much of Europe and life is returning to almost normal in most countries.
Japan’s approach is a whole different story, and watching the Olympics you must admire the country’s determination to host the Games without spectators but with its characteristic no-frills efficiency.
As expected, there was no shortage of sports dramas. But above all, it was a much-needed gift to lift the spirits of a world tired by the pandemic which is watching from afar.
All this as the number of infections increased in the country and daily cases now exceed 25,000.
Japan deserves a gold medal for braving the pandemic to organize this global extravaganza.
Is there an objective way to assess these different approaches and come to a consensus on which is the most effective?
After more than 18 months, with all the data available, the answer should surely be clear.
If the goal is to save the most lives and reduce the number of deaths, there is no doubt that the places did the best: those that imposed strict closures or had strong lines of defense, including testing. , contact tracing and vaccination.
China, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam have all recorded less than 100 deaths per million.
Countries that had a relatively relaxed approach to controlling the virus but tightened measures when the number of infections rose, i.e. how far Europe, including the UK, did, have recorded a much higher number of deaths – from 500 to 2,000 per million population.
The wide range reflects how proactive countries have been in responding to each wave, with Germany and the Netherlands at the bottom of the scale (1,000) and the UK and France with the lowest numbers. higher (1,700 to 2,000).
Finally, there were countries that tried to minimize disruption to their economic and social life with minimal restrictions on movement and other activities such as Sweden, the United States and Brazil. Interestingly, the death rates in Sweden and the United States were not much different from the upper range of the second group, but the figures for Brazil are out of the ordinary with over 2,600 deaths per million. residents.
But what if the goal was not only to preserve life but also the economy?
This was the thought of most European countries and the United States.
You would expect them not to suffer so economically.
In fact, the data has shown the opposite.
Some of the more stringent places saw positive growth last year: Taiwan (3.1%), Vietnam (2.9%), China (2.3%), New Zealand 1%).
For the rest of this group, the figures were: South Korea (minus 1%), Australia (minus 0.3%), Singapore (minus 5.4%).
Economic growth for the second group last year: the Netherlands (minus 3.87%), Germany (minus 4.9%), France (minus 8.1%), the United Kingdom (minus 9.8%).
The third group that chose not to have too many restrictions: Sweden (minus 2.8%), the United States (minus 3.5%), Brazil (minus 4.1%).
A note of caution when interpreting the data: each country’s economy is different from others, and growth is affected not only by public health restrictions, but also depends on the structure of the economy, its dependence with regard to external factors, etc.
But even taking this into account, it’s surprising that the countries with the toughest measures haven’t experienced the greatest economic decline, contrary to earlier fears.
Even in Australia and New Zealand, the economic impact has been much smaller than in the UK and France.
It is therefore not true that a country that does everything to save human lives will necessarily pay the highest economic cost.
The above analysis applies to the pandemic world before vaccines became widely available and were seen as the weapon of choice for most countries.
Now, with many, including Singapore, vaccinating the majority of their population, the problem has turned into how to gradually open up the economy while doing enough to reduce breakthrough infections.
As this phase unfolds, the lessons learned from the pre-vaccine pandemic period are still useful in the post-vaccine world.
I can think of three lessons.
The three lessons
First, there is no silver bullet that applies to all countries and all times. Some of the countries mentioned above as having succeeded in reducing the number of infections are now experiencing record levels of cases, such as Vietnam, Japan and South Korea.
Singapore’s approach has recently been described by Health Minister Ong Ye Kung as taking a “middle path,” neither as strict as the most restrictive nor as open as the most liberal.
I think this is the right approach in the face of an unprecedented situation with uncertain results. A middle way in opening up Singapore’s economy and its borders will also make the most sense.
Second, although there is no one-size-fits-all approach, a consistent position clearly understood by all is important.
According to Professor Igor Rudan of the University of Edinburgh, writing in the current issue of the Journal Of Global Health, European countries that took the stop-go approach were often too slow to respond to the next cluster outbreak and many were taken by surprise by each successive wave.
Their approach was reactive rather than proactive and lacked consistency.
In this case, not only did they suffer heavy losses, but they also did not derive economic benefits.
The certainty and predictability of policies, which were the hallmarks of the first group of countries highlighted above, will be equally important as these countries open up their economies.
A reactive stop-go approach will do more harm to businesses and livelihoods.
The third lesson concerns how the pandemic has affected vulnerable segments of the population, including the poor. According to the latest study published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, they are the ones who have suffered the most from lost earnings and job disruptions.
As Singapore enters the post-vaccination phase, it should continue to monitor this group to ensure they are able to take advantage of available job opportunities.
For example, there will likely be a labor shortage in some sectors because foreign labor will continue to be limited due to border closures.
This can be an opportunity for low-skilled Singaporeans, provided that jobs can be restructured according to their needs and abilities.
The pandemic has shown how important it is to take care of everyone, regardless of race, nationality, age or social and economic class.
It shouldn’t be any different in the post-vaccine world.
- Han Fook Kwang is also a senior researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University