Why have some countries been devastated by the novel coronavirus while others are more or less unscathed?
Some of the answer lies in good or bad luck in geography or timing, while another part lies in good or bad decisions by policy-makers, an expert says.
The graphs below show how Canada compares to several other countries, measured from the point where each country had 100 known cases. Testing practices vary enormously between countries and within countries, so the important thing to keep an eye on is the direction that the right-hand part of any given line is taking: up, down or level.
“Really what matters is the tangent — the slope at the end of the curve is what matters the most,” says Steven Hoffman of York University.
“What really matters is the trend, so even if there are inconsistencies in data collection among different countries, one would hope that there are consistencies within countries.”
“When you look at this, South Korea is the impressive one,” Hoffman says. “They very suddenly were able to plank their curve. The story behind that is that they suddenly were able to scale up mass testing of their population at a very early stage when it really mattered a lot.”
Australia, he says, is in some ways in a lucky position as a separate continent. Canada has been less fortunate.
“You could say that Canada was, in some respects, lucky with geography: we’re bordered by an ocean on three sides, but we’re sort of unlucky in that we are bordering on the country facing the worst outbreak of COVID 19. We’re both lucky and unlucky in that respect,” he says.
The graph below, adjusted for population, offers a different way to look at the data.
“I think there is less reason to be optimistic about the United States than every other country in this figure,” Hoffman says. “There’s so much going on in the United States that’s a problem at the moment.”
Years of divestment from public health has left Americans vulnerable to the crisis that the novel coronavirus presents, he argues. Capabilities can’t be repaired overnight, and it’s hard to make up for a lack of preparation.
“The other issue is that they don’t have a single-payer health-care system, which means that it becomes very difficult to co-ordinate health-care provision in that country,” Hoffman says.
In Canada, hospitals have been shifting personal protective equipment between them, depending on need. In the U.S., hospitals run as private businesses aren’t willing to do that.
“The U.S. is in a situation of its own, unfortunately for us in Canada, because we’re right beside them.”
Sweden took a more lenient approach to locking down its society than surrounding countries. It’s proved controversial.
As an apparent result, it has had proportionately more cases — and deaths — than other parts of Scandinavia. But Hoffman wonders if, in the long run, Sweden’s approach may be more practical.
“What’s happening in Norway, Canada, Britain and the United States might not be fully sustainable over the long term, whereas what Sweden is doing might be sustainable in the long term,” he says. “We don’t know.
“There’s only so long that our society can close schools, public places and businesses and continue to thrive. Sweden took a different approach.”
Graphics by Max Hartshorn
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