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The coronavirus crisis: How the world is dealing with the pandemic

Topics Coronavirus

A police officer sprays disinfectant on a traveller outside Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan, China, after the travel ban was lifted. Photo: Reuters
According to the website worldometers.info, 209 countries around the world have reported more than 1.4 million coronavirus (Covid-19) cases till April 8, 2020. Of these more than 400,000 are from the United States (with 12,857 deaths). The US is followed by European countries like Spain, Italy, France and Germany. China, where the infection originated, marks its presence at No. 6 in this list.

The year 2020 has not had a good run so far and the Covid-19 pandemic is largely to blame. As major economic powers around the world struggle to contain its spread, the global economy stares at a recession that's worse than even 2008. The number of cases in India has also crossed the 5,000 mark according to the website, with 160 deaths (5,149 and 149 according to Govt of India data).

India has entered the last week of a 21-day lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24. The central and state governments are still engaged in discussions about extending this lockdown till the end of the month to curtail the spread of this pandemic. The total lockdown for three weeks brought the Indian economy to a grinding halt and created problems that had not been foreseen by policymakers. This included a humanitarian crisis with lakhs of migrant labour - now suddenly out of work - deciding to march hundreds of kilometres on foot to reach their native places.

As India tries to find the best way to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, it would be interesting to see the policy choices made by different countries around the world to deal with the pandemic. Business Standard takes a look:

China

The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic originated in China’s Hubei province with the city of Wuhan becoming its epicentre. The first cases were reported in December 2019. As the outbreak spread China’s initial response was a mixture of denial and cover-up. In late January, the country began putting in place stricter measures in Hubei, with travel restrictions being imposed and the city of Wuhan being locked down.

The measures adopted by China at this stage included fast expansion of testing facilities, construction of new hospital capacities and closure of schools, workplaces between January and March. Hubei’s population of 60 million was placed under lockdown in this period. Soon, residents of other cities in China were also told to stay at home. More than 760 million people were confined to their homes, according to The New York Times. Handheld thermometer guns were used to measure temperatures of those entering or exiting a building. Those who showed a spike in temperature were taken to makeshift fever clinics where more tests were conducted. People awaited results while maintaining social distance with others who had taken these tests. Those who tested positive for coronavirus were taken to special facilities, while those who tested negative were allowed to go home. Now, Hubei is limping back to normal as the number of new cases in China has come down significantly. More than 3,300 deaths have been reported from China, according to worldometers, out of total 81,000-odd cases.

China’s response of trying to cut contact between people by imposing a lockdown to manage the spread of the disease eventually became a guide for other countries in managing the pandemic’s  spread as well. The emergence of new cases from China has slowed down dramatically, which shows that these hard measures have worked. 

South Korea

South Korea has reported more than 10,000 cases so far out of which 6,776 have recovered and 200 have died. South Korea managed to control the spread of this disease with extensive testing. By the first week of April, South Korea had tested just a little under one per cent of its population of 51 million. From a peak of 909 cases in a day in February, South Korea has now managed to bring it down to less than 100 a day and that too without imposing a lockdown. The country has managed this with aggressive testing, tracing and quarantining. All social distancing is voluntary. It drew lessons from its experience with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2015 that killed 186 people. It prioritised laboratory testing and the first test for Covid-19 was approved in early February. It created drive-through testing facilities and also a phone booth like facility that allows a test to be conducted in seven minutes with healthcare workers not coming in direct contact with those being tested. High risk patients get priority in hospitalisation. The country also uses a mobile app to track those quarantined at home. Local teams call the quarantined people twice daily and breaking the quarantine invites a fine of $2,500 (three million Won)

Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong

Singapore was one of the first countries to suspend incoming flights from Wuhan after China informed the world about the outbreak in Hubei province. This was after it had already started isolating travellers coming from Wuhan. Travellers from other affected areas were also mandatorily quarantined. The govt converted university hostels into quarantine facilities and also compensated employees and employers for any work days lost. It also took a conscious call against a lockdown owing to its economic costs. Instead it opted for daily health checks that included temperature screenings. However, Singapore changed its approach as cases continued to rise in the island country. In April, it decided to shut all non-essential workplaces and schools. 

In Taiwan, the authorities first screened travellers from affected regions in China before they implemented a ban on incoming travel from those parts. It created quarantine facilities but home quarantine was the preferred mode. Those who broke isolation orders were fined $33,200. No lockdown was imposed but organisers of mass events were encouraged to defer or cancel those events.

In Hong Kong, starting from Feb 5, anyone coming from mainland China was asked to undergo a mandatory 14 day period of self-quarantine. Extensive tracing was done to limit exposure to any known cases. It encouraged strong social distancing measures without implementing a total lockdown, even though schools were closed on Feb 16 and their closure was extended multiple times (closed till April 20 as per last decision). Earlier today, it extended social-distancing restrictions till April 23. Hong Kong’s policy response also includes payment of HK$ 10,000 to those permanent resident of the city who had been financially impacted by the pandemic. The Hong Kong finance minister made the announcement in his budget as early as February, earmarking $10 billion for the purpose. 

Italy

More than 17,000 people have died in Italy from coronavirus, making it the biggest crisis for the European nation since World War-II. A total of 135,000 cases have been reported so far. Italy leads the world in the number of fatalities. Like many other countries, the Italian reaction to the coronavirus pandemic was driven by carelessness and bravado. Its political class has been accused of mishandling the crisis and refusing to take timely action to prevent the outbreak. They have been accused of underestimating the virus.

The pandemic began in the Lombardy region in northern Italy. The leader of the ruling party posted a picture of himself in February, urging the people of Milan (Lombardy’s capital) not to change their habits. In less than a month the Italian government had to send in the army to Lombardy to enforce a lockdown as bodies piled up in churches. The Italian government has been accused of trailing the virus rather than preventing it. It implemented a porous lockdown in part of the country which had to be implemented all over the country later on as the pandemic spread.

The government has now announced a fiscal rescue package of 25 billion euros. Other measures include freeze on layoffs, one time payment of 500 euros to the self-employed and bonuses for Italians working during the lockdown.

Germany

As early as February, German government announced the creation of a special crisis team to deal with the possible spread of Covid-19 in the country. As on date, Germany has reported more than 107,000 cases with a mortality rate of around 1.8%. 

One of the reasons for a lower mortality in Germany (in comparison to Italy or Spain) has been the lower average age of infection (49 years). The robust public healthcare system in Germany is another possible reason for how the country has managed to tackle the crisis. Germany has 28,000 intensive care beds in the country which it plans to raise to 50,000 in the near future. 

The government started a strong social-distancing campaign and encouraged people to self-isolate at home. Supermarkets and pharmacies continue to remain open while restaurants and other stores are closed. The biggest economy in the Eurozone, Germany is also bringing out the big guns to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic. It has passed an emergency 156 billion euro supplementary budget for 2020. Out of this 50 billion euros have been earmarked to small businesses and the self-employed who have lost access to credit. Landlords have been barred from evicting tenants who fail to pay rent due to the Covid-19 crisis. Other measures include assured liquidity for companies and compensation for workers sent home by their employers. 

Public life in Germany is largely shut at the moment. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the restrictions “indispensable at the moment to save lives.”

United States 

The United States of America has so far reported more than 400,000 coronavirus cases with more than 12,800 deaths. It has also conducted more than two million tests so far.

The US government, led by President Donald Trump has however faced severe criticism for its handling of the pandemic. From dismissing the disease as a hoax to now threatening other countries for not supplying medicines to it, Trump has come a long way. While in February, he tweeted that the US had it all under control, it has now become the most affected country with the New York region bearing the brunt of it. 

While the US government has weighed economic considerations over a lockdown, various states have adopted measures on their own. Even as the pandemic spread across the north American country, policymakers debated action and responded late.

New York restricted gatherings of more than 50 people, shut cinemas, bars and restaurants only on March 16. Till recently the US government was accused of not testing enough which prevented a real understanding of how bad the spread of the pandemic was. 

The Trump administration came under fire for having dismantled a team that was supposed to deal with pandemics. The leadership vacuum has been filled by state governors instead but they have struggled with shortages of essential supplies like masks, PPEs and ventilators.

Late in March, the US Senate and the Trump government agreed on a $ 2 trillion stimulus package for the virus-hit US economy. The package seeks to put cash in the hands of Americans and provide grants to small businesses and billions to large corporations.


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