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As COVID spikes in U.S., some countries report few infections and deaths 

COUNTRIES THAT DID BETTER

click to enlarge Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, has led a successful response. - ALEXANDROS MICHAILIDIS
  • Alexandros Michailidis
  • Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, has led a successful response.

Half a year out from the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., things aren’t looking up. Data collected by Johns Hopkins University say that it’s spreading faster, with more than 60,000 new cases discovered on July 7, compared to more than 25,000 on June 17. In some states, like New Hampshire and Connecticut, it’s slowing down, with fewer new cases each week. But The New York Times reports that the pandemic is spreading faster in Arizona, Florida and South Carolina, among many others. Times reporter David Leonhardt said on July 8 that these states have each had more new cases per capita than any country, with Bahrain coming in fourth, followed by Louisiana, Qatar and Oman.

There’s no end to the bad news about COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t good news. Some countries have found ways to successfully curb the spread of the disease. New Zealand, for instance, has made headlines with its relatively low rates of infection and death. The island nation of 4.9 million has confirmed 1,544 cases total as of July 13, according to those same Johns Hopkins data, and 22 people have died. Perhaps more remarkable, the nation has only reported 33 cases since mid-June, mostly ascribed to New Zealanders returning home after being stuck abroad. For some context, El Paso County has confirmed over 3,000 cases and 116 deaths in the same time period, though it’s unfair to compare the two without noting that there are glaring differences between an island in the Pacific and the middle of Colorado.

“The lesson is that it can be done,” said Siouxsie Wiles, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Auckland, in a late May interview with NPR. “Our prime minister made the decision that she did not want what was happening in Italy to happen in New Zealand.”

Early in the pandemic, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern outlined a four-stage alert system with protocols listed at each level. At the highest levels, international travel was prohibited. Currently, at alert level one, anyone entering the country must go through two weeks of isolation, usually in a hotel with added security, during which they’re tested twice. 

Alert levels three and four mandated a wide array of school, business and public venue closures, as well as mandating that people work from home if possible. Messaging from the government focused on collective responsibility, imploring people to use a nationally developed app for contact tracing or, at the very least, to keep diaries of where they went.

“[Ardern] talked over and over about us being a team of 5 million and that we all do our part to break these chains of transmission and to eliminate the virus,” Wiles told NPR. “I think that has been one of the really crucial things — everybody knowing how they had to behave and that they were behaving for the good of everybody.”

Another positive story comes from Vietnam, which has had fewer than 400 cases and, as of July 13, zero deaths. That’s astonishing for a country of 97 million, especially given that Vietnam and China share a land border around 800 miles in length. But Vietnam started instituting its lockdown in late January, when three individuals returning from China’s Hubei Province, where the outbreak began, were found to have caught the virus.

“Vietnam is a great example of the notion that you don’t have to be a rich country to beat a pandemic, as long as you are quick, well-prepared and focused,” Ho Chi Minh City-based journalist Sen Nguyen told Al Jazeera. “A week after the first case was confirmed in late January, the country declared a public health emergency over the Coronavirus epidemic. At the same time, it was already in conversation with experts and manufacturers to develop its own testing kits.”

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According to Nguyen, Vietnam’s experiences with past viral outbreaks like SARS and avian flu gave the country a clear framework for what a public health response has to look like. Vox reported that, through April 29, the nation had tested 300,000 people, focusing on those who had traveled to or from China, their family and business contacts, and then anyone who had symptoms. Online publication Our World in Data reported that for every positive COVID test, Vietnam tested 966.7 people during that time, a staggering display of cautionary testing, especially considering that in roughly the same period, the U.S. tested 6.2 people for every positive result. Anyone who tested positive in Vietnam was quarantined in a government-controlled facility for two weeks, with self-isolation prohibited to prevent spread among families.

As much as the Vietnamese government’s swift response and clear, consistent communication helped, Saigon-based researcher Ba-Linh Tran gives as much if not more credit to the Vietnamese people themselves.

“We voluntarily contributed to the fight,” Tran told Al Jazeera on July 6. “We stayed inside. We wore masks when going out. Businesses provided hand sanitizer for customers — [and continue to] to this day, I might add. Some businesses even checked customers’ temperatures before letting them in… We, the Vietnamese people, framed the virus as a … life-or-death matter. We did not have this strange, ideological debate and protest against wearing masks, against staying at home and not going to the barbershop like some places in the US… we have never framed it as a personal liberty thing.”

While there are differences between the Vietnamese response, the New Zealand response and the responses of other nations that have flattened the curve and seen milder outbreaks, the basics remain the same. Both governments intervened early and communicated clearly what was going on and what was going to be done about it. With that information in place and the issue framed clearly as a public health and safety matter, the people followed best practices.

“At the end of the day, it’s not magic,” said Thomas Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, in a May 5 article in Vox. “It’s shoe-leather public health.” 

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