This week’s Extra! Extra! COVID-19 offers a case-by-case look at how the pandemic is playing out in different parts of the world. With confirmed cases in most countries around the world at this point it is, obviously, impossible to be comprehensive. Below is a smattering of articles that I found to be thought-provoking, interesting and informative about how the crisis is unfolding in different places and the measures being taken by individuals and governments to address it (or, in many cases, not). Please join the conversation with stories from around the world that interested you in the comments.
To Start, a Bird’s Eye View (From a Bird That Needs Glasses)
Everything we will ever know about this pandemic will always be fuzzy and incomplete. This isn’t one of those “humanity can never truly understand nature” type of philosophical statements. The vast, vast majority of countries have under-tested for COVID-19. (Truly the exceptions to that can probably be counted on one hand.) This article from Vox talks about the different case fatality rates we’re seeing for COVID-19 around the world – a measure of how many people will die from the disease. While some of the variation that’s being seen in the case fatality rate can be explained by population characteristics (most notably age) as well as country wealth, one of the biggest factors is the extent to which a country has been testing people for the virus. If you don’t have an accurate count of how many people have the disease, it’s impossible to have an accurate fatality rate.
But another factor here is, of course, the politics of it. Politics is what has driven which countries are testing, to what extent and what they’re doing with that information. The articles below offer some case studies on that.
Countries that Took This Seriously from the Start
South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore have been lauded for containing COVID-19. So much of this has to do with testing, contact tracing and quarantine, which is how the SARS pandemic from 2003 was ultimately managed. As both of these articles mention, it’s no coincidence that some of the countries that were worst hit by SARS were quick to act in response to COVID-19: the threat of Coronavirus wasn’t abstract for them. In response to SARS, the Taiwanese government established the Taiwan National Health Command Center, or NHCC. (Contrast that to the Trump administration which, in 2018, cut the unit responsible for preparing for a pandemic on the National Security Council – although he wasn’t the only US president to de-prioritize federal preparation for pandemics.) The NHCC was quick to implement containment measures as soon as the threat of the virus became clear in China. This, coupled with a strong, universal health care system, has helped a country in such close proximity to China to manage the spread of the virus while others across the world have failed to.
In addition to extensive testing, South Korea harnessed tech to aid in the containment, going so far as to use data from surveillance cameras, cell phones and credit card transactions to trace contacts of people who tested positive. This raises several thorny questions about privacy and government control. But when I consider that private corporations like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and now Zoom have mines and mines of my data (which is being used in all sorts of dubious ways) the idea of governments using the same sorts of information in the interests of public health suddenly feels less threatening to me. (Also, let’s be real, the US is also a massive surveillance state, and I think we would be hard pressed to find a country that isn’t.)
Over in Europe, Germany may not have been as successful as some East Asian countries in containing the virus, but it’s a model for how it’s responding to the situation, with one of the lowest fatality rates in the world. That’s a combined result of extensive testing, a strong health care system and reliable leadership at the helm during this crisis.
And in Africa, South Africa moved swiftly to roll out testing and impose a lockdown in ways that so many countries have failed to. But with a fraught history between law enforcement and civilians, these measures come with great risk; indeed there are already recorded incidents of police brutality. There are also substantial concerns about the disease spreading into some of the poorest parts of the country, which have weak infrastructure and lower quality health care. As South African author and journalist Mark Gevisser writes, “The AIDS crisis in South Africa taught us that the severity of an epidemic is linked to social determinants such as poverty, gender inequality and violent conflict.”
And Then, the Countries That Did Not…
In an era of rising populism and xenophobia, the pandemic lays bare our common humanity in at least this area: our collective inability to prioritize life over political games, social divisions and capitalistic concerns. There’s a lot – too much really – to say about the politics behind each of these governmental failures, so I’m not even going to try to give an overview of that. Instead, I’m going to focus on just a few case studies in how the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing political issues.
If you read one article from this round up, let it be this essay by Arundhati Roy where the master of fiction and political writing draws a line from America to India with COVID-19 marching every step along the way.
+ The Pandemic Is a Portal
While the pandemic is testing weak governments, it also presents challenges to the important political movements that were happening in response to those governments. For instance, consider the situation in Algeria.
+ Coronavirus in Algeria: A Country’s Last Warning
Nonetheless, activists and opposition party leaders are using this moment to continue to call out the failed leadership in their countries, as in Brazil, for instance.
+ Brazilian Left Demands Bolsonaro Resign over Coronavirus Response
Back in the US, we know that the effects of this pandemic will be felt differently by race and region.
+ How Racial Health Disparities Will Play Out in the Pandemic
And the effects of US foreign policy continue to make volatile situations even worse, as Tehran’s Mayor explains. Indeed the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as well as 60 Spanish organizations have demanded that sanctions be lifted worldwide in response to the crisis.
+ Sanctions Are Crippling Iran’s Fight against Coronavirus
And Then There Are the Peoples and the Places Which Have Few, If Any, Options
As I read news about the pandemic, I’ve been increasingly concerned about what will happen when the disease hits people who are already trying to survive the ravages of war, genocide and extreme poverty. These are some of the most vulnerable people who – even in the face of all the tragedies that have been distributed among the wealthier parts of the world thus far – will truly bear the brunt of the pandemic.
This is the point at which I have to stop reading the news.
A Few Glimpses of Hope
In spite of this nearly-worldwide failure, there are still stories to be found of people who are supporting each other in the face of their governments’ shortcomings (to put it nicely). Here are just two examples from the UK and Moscow:
And Finally, a Memorial
There are so many things that make COVID-19 and this pandemic so devastating. Perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching is the knowledge that so many people are, not just dying from this disease, but they are dying alone. Their loved ones cannot even hold proper memorials and rituals to process their own grief because of social distancing.
This past Saturday, China observed a national day of mourning to honor those lost to COVID-19.
“When Sirens Went Off, I Began to Cry”: China Mourns Virus Deaths