Speedy testing and social distancing regulations have allowed some nations to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control.
But in other nations, denial, a shortage of supplies, and failure to act have created conditions ripe for viral transmission.
Germany a leader in virus management
Germany acted quickly to curb coronavirus infections, overseeing the largest-scale testing program in Europe.
Lockdown restrictions have significantly slowed the rate of new infections since mid-March, preventing hospitals, doctors and health-care workers from being overwhelmed.
Derided by many economists for years for insisting on a balanced budget and criticised for a health care system seen as bloated and overly expensive, Germany found itself well equipped to weather the coronavirus pandemic.
Already applauded for early actions such as social-distancing regulations and aggressive testing seen as helping keep the death toll comparatively low, Europe’s largest economy has had the financial flexibility to launch a massive rescue plan to help businesses and keep workers paid.
Germany is now taking baby steps to ease restrictions, allowing smaller shops to reopen this week while sticking to strict social-distancing guidelines. The effect will be analysed after two weeks to see whether infections have started to significantly climb.
South Korea flattened curve with technology
After seeing an initial spike in COVID-19 infections in February, South Korea implemented several measures to bring the disease’s spread under control.
Two measures in particular however were critical in the country’s ability to flatten the curve: extensive testing for the disease and a national system for promptly and effectively tracking people infected with COVID-19.
From the 2015 MERS outbreak, Korea learned that infection to medical staff sapped the ability to control the virus as infected citizens in hospitals turned them into hotspots for infection.
As a result, at the onset of COVID-19 infection, the Korean government ensured that proper personal protective equipment was provided to avoid infection to the medical staff.
It also created physically separated testing and treatment sites for health care workers.
Once safe testing and treatment facilities were secured, the government began testing for COVID-19 at massive scale – over 440,000 people – which essentially covered all those with symptoms. People who test positive are quarantined in COVID-19 special units and treated.
South Korea focuses attention on treating people with severe symptoms and therefore less likelihood of recovery, rather than focusing on people with mild symptoms.
This helped lower the mortality rate of COVID-19, as some of the most vulnerable populations with severe symptoms recovered.
US woefully unprepared
The epicentre of the pandemic is now the United States, where President Trump initially accused the Democratic party of politicising the virus as a “hoax” and failed to heed multiple warnings from top scientists for months.
The United States possesses jewels of medical exceptionalism that have long been the envy of the world, like the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. But where are the results?
Simple gloves. Complicated ventilators. Special lab chemicals. Tests. Swabs. Masks. Gowns. Face shields. Hospital beds.
Emergency payouts from the government. Benefits for idled workers. Small business relief. Each has been subject to chronic shortages, spot shortages, calcified bureaucracy or some combination.
The United States saw this coming 15 years ago and still wasn’t prepared.
“If a pandemic strikes, our country must have a surge capacity in place that will allow us to bring a new vaccine online quickly and manufacture enough to immunize every American against the pandemic strain,” President George W. Bush said in a call for readiness in 2005.
Bush announced billions of dollars for a wide-ranging plan for a pandemic like this one. It accelerated a new method of vaccine research, beefed up stockpiles and steered aid to states to build mobile hospitals and more.
Many of the needs of today were anticipated in a mix of federal and state plans, but for all the creativity and ambition, a year later almost half the states had not spent any of their own money for the preparedness subsidised by Washington.
In the years that followed – through the Great Recession, more war, more time passing – the federal effort languished, too. Foresight became a thing of the past. And to hear Mr Trump, it’s as if it never existed.
“Unforeseen problem,” Mr Trump says of the pandemic. “Came out of nowhere.”
“This is something that you can never really think is going to happen.”
UK slammed over testing
The British government has come under sustained criticism for responding slowly to the coronavirus pandemic as its chief medical adviser warned that social distancing measures may have to stay in place for the rest of this year and beyond.
In Europe, the UK is behind only Italy, Spain and France in virus-related deaths. The actual death toll is potentially thousands more since the British government does not include in its daily updates the people who died in care homes or other settings outside hospitals.
Keir Starmer, the new leader of the main opposition Labour Party, told lawmakers that a “pattern is emerging” in which the Conservative government has been too slow in putting the country into a virus lockdown, in testing people for the virus and in getting critical protective gear for medical workers.
Labour lawmaker Barry Sheerman went further, slamming the government’s handling of the pandemic as “shambolic” – a sign that the multi-party political consensus that formed over the pandemic is fraying.
The questions are coming as Prime Minister Boris Johnson convalesces at his country retreat following his week-long stay in a hospital receiving treatment for COVID-19.
Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair told ITV television that hugely important decisions have to be “taken now”, including ramping up testing so Britain can safely exit its coronavirus lockdown, which is scheduled to run until May 7 at least.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has been sitting in for Mr Johnson, said the government still aims to conduct 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of this month – even though it is only delivering around 20,000 tests now.
Brazil’s government, states fight for pandemic supplies
As in the US, competition for medical equipment in Brazil has become internal. Some states are vying for material with the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who is already sharply at odds with many governors over coronavirus containment measures.
Experts fear such political rivalries could hurt efforts to fight the pandemic in Brazil, which has the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths in the region at 45,757 and 2906, respectively. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested.
The disputes come as Mr Bolsonaro, who has likened COVID-19 to “a little flu”, rages against governors who have passed stay-at-home measures to limit its spread and recently fired his health minister who encouraged the policies, which he says will wreak economic destruction.
Experts and health executives on the ground fear the newly appointed health minister will be influenced by Mr Bolsonaro’s feuds with the governors.
In a statement sent to the AP on Tuesday, Brazil’s ministry of health defended its overall strategy. It said that as a regulator in the pandemic response, it needed to ensure that “all states in the country are supplied with the equipment and supplies necessary to face the disease”.
Since the beginning of the crisis, the ministry said it has delivered 253 ventilators to nine different states and 71 million masks.
On the front lines, public sector medical staff, hospital executives and doctors’ unions are angered by the shortages in ventilators and the failure to provide protective equipment. They say the lack of masks and gloves is exposing doctors to the deadly virus, as well as their families and hospital patients.
Coronavirus: what you need to know
How is coronavirus transmitted?
The human coronavirus is only spread from someone infected with COVID-19 to another. This occurs through close contact with an infected person through contaminated droplets spread by coughing or sneezing, or by contact with contaminated hands or surfaces.
How can I protect myself and my family?
World Health Organisation and NSW Health both recommend basic hygiene practices as the best way to protect yourself from coronavirus.
Good hygiene includes:
Clean your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand sanitiser;
Cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with tissue or your elbow;
Avoid close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms;
Apply safe food practices; and
Stay home if you are sick.
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Reported with Associated Press, CNN and The Conversation.
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