#COVID19Chronicles-161: September 20, 2020-Some international and regional context

No definitive measure exists to say whether a country is doing well with the handling of COVID-19. That’s not to say you cannot assess the impact of measures used by countries.

Dramatic differences in how countries have been curbing transmission rates within their borders—and which actions have been most effective across the board.

Typically, the best weapon in the containment of diseases arsenal is a vaccine, which stops a virus before it can multiply inside a person. While the world waits for this preventative medicine, which may not be ready until next year, countries are focusing on other measures, such as testing, isolating sick people, and shutting down borders. But what scientists have learned since January is that COVID-19 often beat these defenses before they could even be established.

One thing many countries learn is that ‘containment fatigue’ is real, and restrictions will be fought hard my many, maybe even most, in some areas.

No measure can set one country against another to say categorically it has done better than others. Starting conditions were not the same. Underlying conditions are not the same. Social structures and cultures are different. Ethnic differences are not trivial. Health profiles (national, regional) are not the same. Resource availability differs, especially but not confined to what medical facilities exist (hospitals, equipment, staffing etc) and under what conditions (costs, physical location and quantities). I’ve tried to follow what’s going on in lots of countries since I got back from the UK to Jamaica in March. Responses in Europe were different across the continent. Response in the USA were different from those in Europe and also different across the (strange federal structure) states. I have tried to note responses in Latin America and Africa, but again, these are all over the place. A global pandemic with no common approaches across countries, seems to bode ill for eventual success, but let me try to remain optimistic. I am not going to hail or condemn any country. I noted Sweden and Israel early on because they took clear policy stances; Sweden decided to keep things as close to normal as possible (it had some lockdown, initially. The BBC reported: ‘Sweden has largely relied on voluntary social distancing guidelines since the start of the pandemic, including working from home where possible and avoiding public transport. 
There’s also been a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, restrictions on visiting care homes, and a shift to table-only service in bars and restaurants. The government has repeatedly described the pandemic as “a marathon not a sprint”, arguing that its measures are designed to last in the long term.’

Israel decided to lockdown much (eg travel restrictions, social distancing, national emergency) early on–all in the context of no official government, pending elections.

Sweden was much criticized in the first three months, largely because its death rate was considerably higher than most. Three months further on, and the Swedish approach is showing that the impact of the pandemic has levelled off considerably (almost disappeared) and deaths are lower than in many countries. A significant part of the death story is that Sweden got wrong the policy for people in care homes, who made up the bulk of deaths. Its economy is now showing a much shallower downturn than many of its comparators.

Israel’s early success is just about to be put back as it has decided to reimpose a near total lockdown ahead of the major religious celebration, including Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, on 27 September. That new lockdown has created major political upheaval.

As the BBC reported: ‘Many nations are experiencing second surges of the virus. However most governments are now imposing smaller local lockdowns in affected areas, rather than blanket national ones.’

So, the global pandemic is exhibiting a global pattern, as second waves appear after countries have tried to go back to ‘normal’. This second wave is at least of the same intensity and magnitude (cases and deaths) as the first. It’s too early to say if this will be the chronic trend, going forward, ie if multiple waves of varying intensity will occur and with what intervals. So, somewhat like other coronaviruses, eg flu, we may see something that is quasi-seasonal, ie recurrent and inevitable.

As Jamaica’s minister of health and wellness releases data daily on tests, cases and deaths, people see Jamaica’s progress in great national and local detail, but they see little else. I do not recall a comparison with more than one or two countries in the region. Consequently, it’s easy to get what’s happening in Jamaica out of context, even in the simple regional geographical sense, especially now community transmission is occurring. But, in light of what is going on elsewhere in the world, it’s important to not just look at our country as if that tells us very much. People who should have an eye on the region can be cited as saying “Jamaica’s numbers are bad!” Bad, my foot!

Relative to most countries in the Caribbean, Jamaica’s results are good, especially when seen on a per 100,000 people basis, as the chart shows, and notably, when one considers bigger territories.

So, before you feel tempted to join the chorus of ‘the sky is falling on Jamaica’, cast your eyes around and ask if the Dominican Republic or Trinidad or The Bahamas look to be in a more ‘perilous’ state. Always, being mindful (if possible) of what each country has done or is trying to do.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

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