Extra! Extra!: The Harrowing and Hopeful News about COVID-19 Around the Globe

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)

The Stark Differences in Countries’ Coronavirus Death Rates, Explained

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

How South Korea Reined In The Outbreak Without Shutting Everything Down

Taiwan’s Coronavirus Response Is among the Best Globally

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.)

A German Exception? Why the Country’s Coronavirus Death Rate Is Low

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.

How Can You Social Distance When You Share a Toilet With Your Neighbor?

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

+ Early Data Shows African Americans Have Contracted and Died of Coronavirus at an Alarming Rate

+ The Coronavirus’s Unique Threat to the South

+ U.S. Latinos among Hardest Hit by Pay Cuts, Job Losses due to Coronavirus

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.

+ Refugee Camps Face COVID-19: “If We Do Nothing, The Harm Is Going To Be So Extreme”

+ Yemen’s Civil War Will Make the Coronavirus Even More Dangerous

+ “A Ticking Time Bomb:” Scientists Worry about Coronavirus Spread in Africa

+ A Remote First Nation Prepares for Its Most Daunting Challenge: Limiting the Spread of Coronavirus

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:

+ A Different Kind of Anarchy in the U.K.

+ Meet the Activist-Doctor Who Has Become the Kremlin’s Loudest Coronavirus Critic

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

Himani has written 15 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. Thank you, himani, for this roundup. I have been fortunate to be able to focus on caring for my family during this unprecedented time. I also don’t want to stick my head in the sand, and thus appreciate the links. I’ve read a few VOX articles that Natalie linked to, that I found very informative. Thank you and take care!

  2. This looks like a great roundup, looks like I have plenty to read tomorrow!

    Came across this article in the Guardian, about the general health and equality numbers in the US and why you guys are more like a developing country: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2020/apr/06/coronavirus-american-reaction-economy-covid-19.
    Very interesting, kind of depressing.

    Also: Boris Johnson was just admitted to the ICU. Can’t stand the man, but still, hope he recovers. He’s still a human being.

    • Wow thank you for sharing the Guardian article… It’s so incredibly eye opening to see all the stats stacked together like that. I too have been questioning what it means to be a “developed” economy right now, in light of everything that’s going on. I can stop fan-girling over Arundhati Roy but she covers this spectacularly in her essay.

      • I think the Boris news may have broken after you posted, because as I commented it was just out.

        I’m not familiar with the works of Arundhati Roy, so that’s another thing to read up on!

        Haven’t even gotten around to a single of your links – there is so much news everyday. Will try again tomorrow.

        Got the message today that my best friends father in law died from covid. He was in the ICU for a few weeks, and this was expected for a while, but still. Even if I didn’t know the man personally, this is the first time for me someone nearby has died from this. I’m afraid it won’t be the last one. Thankfully his mother in law is doing better, she’s of the ventilator and was able to be with her husband in the end.

        Stay safe everybody!

  3. Here in New Zealand our PM is being amazing. She’s been live streaming from her home, on top of daily press conferences, and answering questions as they come in with such kindness and compassion. Yesterday she confirmed during her press conference to the children of New Zealand that the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny are essential services, so are allowed to operate during lockdown. She made sure to mention that they may not make it to every house this year, but will be back next year, which was also a kindness to parents who can’t afford treats right now.
    Our government is also raising unemployment benefits, doubling the winter bonus that beneficiaries get during winter to help with heating costs, subsidising wages for shut down businesses and working to get our homeless population into housing.
    They’ve banned evictions for three months, paused mortgage payments and banned rent increases for six months.

  4. Reading that article where Boris says he will continue to shake peoples hands in hospitals. Explains a lot about why he is currently in hospital with covid now doesn’t it. What a knobhead.

  5. here in Taiwan I feel very safe. I can go to my local pharmacy and buy cheap surgical masks, one for every weekday. of course, they’re rationed, so people can’t hoard or buy out a whole bunch. if I needed to get tested, I can go to the hospital and get tested because I have national health insurance. the government has a very dorky and very thorough press conference everyday which details every patient infected, how they were infected, and connects their case to any previous cases so we’re all informed. they’ve also made many temporary rules about quarantining, social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing, which, by the way, is now the law on any public transport.

    I just need to stop telling my family and friends back home how great Taiwan is, because they’re all scared and anxious for their own safety, which I am worried about as well. my mom and pop are old! what if they get sick? should I cancel my long-planned-trip back to California this summer? if I went back, would I even be able to see my friends and family at all?

    • Everything you’re describing feels so surreal and unbelievable to me right now… I can’t even begin to understand it.

      Honestly, I don’t know where the US will be at by this summer? I keep hearing mixed things and for my own sake I’m trying not to think too far ahead… Hopefully things become clearer so you can make a decision one way or another about your trip.

  6. So, this might be a bit scary/morbid for people, so feel free to stop reading now, but I’d like to recommend to everyone to think about their medical wishes.

    My friend had both his parents on the ICU, and they were discussing whether to stop treatment for the father and they had never discussed this. And both kids had different opinions on this. Eventually the situation worsened and he died today.

    But this situation reminded me that I’d never fully discussed this with my parents, so we did, last week. I do hope I don’t need to use this knowledge for many years to come, but it’s better to be prepared. We also discussed where their papers for the grave are and what kind of service they’d want. It was a beautiful conversation, despite the sad subject.

    So consider if you’d want to be resuscitated, put on a ventilator, go to the ICU, etc. There are many pro’s and con’s to all of these things. After ICU, if you make it out, there is a long and difficult rehabilitation proces, especially if you are older. Some older people are never able to go back home, and need to go to a nursing home.

    I’m not saying people shouldn’t want these things, it’s a very personal choice. It’s also very cultural. I’ve heard that the Dutch are much more open to stopping these things compared to other countries.

    So please: take some time to think about this and discuss them with your loved ones. Think about older people in your (chosen) family and discuss this with them. Write choices down.

    If anyone wants to talk about this more, you may message me. I used to work in a nursing home, so I’ve had some experience in end of life care.

    Take care everyone!

    • Thanks for this. I think everything you’ve said is incredibly important. It’s morbid and difficult to talk about and to think about, but I agree that these are such important conversations to have.

      Thank you

      • You are welcome, I’m glad I could help.

        As I mentioned I worked in a nursing home. Helping people who are dying to be comfortable, having the loved ones understand what is happening, these are all very important factors. If you’ve never been with someone who’s dying before it can be scary and difficult.

    • I don’t know about the legal systems all over the world but I’m going to guess advanced directives need witnesses etc for some of them to be recognized by medical professionals or hospital administration.
      Sometimes just being next of kin isn’t official enough.

      So check your local regulations on what needs to be done to make your directives as official, binding and followed with the least muss possible.

      Especially things like if your relations or friends need to have a physical copy to hand the hospital administration or just them being on file as having power of attorney for you is enough.

      • You know, I was wondering about this but I didn’t want to raise it because it just seemed like too much. Thank you for bringing it up because I think it’s so important. I believe in the US at least, unless your advanced directive says otherwise, decision making for single people goes to… legal parents, which – especially in our community – might not be ideal for a lot of reasons. So your absolutely right, Lex, it’s so important to know the legal requirements around these end of life decisions as well! That being said, I have no idea where to even begin to find this information.

        • This is uh pretty grim but I know for a fact some pro-bono legal aid groups for AIDs have advance directives as one of their services, might be a place to start.
          If you or any staff are up to that.

    • Thanks so much, and thank you for sharing the article about MERS! While I knew the rough outlines of that situation, I didn’t know about how it affected South Korea.

      One thing I think is so interesting from the article you shared was the desire for transparency around which hospitals, medical centers, etc. had cases of MERS. When I think about the questions people have around privacy, etc. regarding South Korea’s handling of COVID-19 another layer that article adds is that transparency and privacy need to go hand in hand. People might be willing to give up some of their privacy in a public health crisis, but there has to be a corresponding transparency from the government about what is happening and it seems like that was one of the “lessons learned” after the MERS outbreak in South Korea.

      The other thing that strikes me about the MERS outbreak in South Korea is how hospitals became the vehicle for transmission. There isn’t really data on this but speaking purely anecdotally, it seems that a good friend of mine in NYC probably had COVID-19 around the end of Jan/early Feb and eventually went to an urgent care center when her respiratory symptoms got really bad and… they told her she was just having a bad case of seasonal allergies…??! In February! Despite the fact she had a fever! The horrifying thing to think about is how many other people might have gotten infected in all that time because of the collective denial in the US about the virus.

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