Stories of national success in the pandemic have an embarrassingly short shelf-life

The oft-asked question – which nations are winning the fight against the pandemic – now has only one coherent answer. It depends on the month. The virus has repeatedly made losers of winners, and vice versa.

Not long ago, the United States and the UK were chastised for incompetent responses led by “illiberal populists” and inspired by Anglo imperial hubris, and a clueless “faith in their national greatness”. Now one of those populists, Donald Trump, is gone. The other, Boris Johnson, is not. But both nations are widely praised for rapid vaccine rollouts, and feted by many tourists as the safest places to vacation this summer.

Uday Deb

Meanwhile many nations that were complimented early on for containing the virus, from Asia to Europe, have since suffered debilitating surges, slow vaccine rollouts or both. What is striking about all these cases is how quickly broad national and cultural stereotypes were used to explain success and failure – then just as quickly forgotten. Now no one is saying that the United States is bumbling “like a Third World country”, as one Nobel laureate did last year.

The search for winning strategies began in South Korea and Taiwan, where low caseloads were attributed to well-prepared bureaucracies, and orderly societies prepared to follow rules to a degree “that’s hard to imagine in the West”. That was before Korea in particular suffered a spike in cases.

After a 102-day run with no local cases, Thailand was cited as a model last September by the World Health Organisation, which credited heavy investment in public health. Many analysts went further, citing Thailand and its Mekong-region neighbours for cultures that prize cleanliness and frown on social touching. No shoes in the house, no kissing in public, no virus.

Lifestyle explanations were also offered for the low early death toll in India. Lives spent in densely packed homes, consuming unsanitary food and drinking dirty water allowed millions of Indians to build an “innate immunity” to pathogens of all kinds, including the coronavirus.

This story was told in international publications, but we Indians took the “hygiene hypothesis” to extremes, speculating on the special hardiness of people who grew up “playing in mud”. Or perhaps it was Indian fondness for hot spices, onions and street food? Or maybe it was the intense survival instinct of a people who know that, if they get the virus, “they have no one coming to get them.” None of that speculation panned out.

Stereotypical success stories have had an equally short shelf life in the West. Sweden’s defiantly light touch approach to lockdowns has had its admirers, who speculated that the country’s “culture of conformity” would enforce safe behaviour. Besides, they said, Swedes were solitary types anyway, and an unusually high number of them live alone. This natural form of social distancing could “save Sweden” from the pandemic. Cases spiked anyway last fall and Sweden’s own king declared that its controversial strategy had “failed”.

Germany was slipping around the same time. After it contained a first wave, I was one of many analysts who thought this highlighted pre-existing German strengths, from efficient government to cooperative federalism. Others lauded the orderly qualities of a rationally-minded population willing to follow “scientist in chief” Angela Merkel. Then in winter the second wave hit, much harder.

Perhaps no country has suffered a fall harder than Canada, which had a much lower death rate than the United States last summer. Canadians proudly credited superior healthcare and communal spirit, and a “sane” political culture led by a prime minister disinclined to weird medical theories.

Now, vaccine distribution is unfolding faster in the United States than Canada. The Canadian daily case count has shot above the US rate. Canadians profess a “humbling” new admiration for American “can-do spirit” and medical knowhow. So do some Europeans. But history will judge how nations fared over the full course of the pandemic, not in May of 2021. The per capita death tolls of the US and UK are still among the four highest in the developed world, behind only Belgium and Italy.

True, the virus has not shattered “the already battered idea of American exceptionalism”, as many commentators expected a year ago. But no major country has yet achieved herd immunity. Reopenings and lockdowns have been trial-and-error experiments, proceeding at varying speeds across the globe. No one can be sure how the endgame will play out.

Vaccines may indeed be the miracle weapon that finally wins this battle. The US Centres for Disease Control is however very careful to send a message that while vaccines are highly effective, whether they will work against all variants is not yet fully understood. It has not declared victory. Others would be wise not to either.

The lesson to armchair epidemiologists: picking winners in the middle of a fight is a mistake. Recall how poorly last month’s claims of victory panned out before rushing to declare new winners this month. Recognise that the virus has a long-term survival plan of its own, and is still generating variants.

More important, look at how poorly cultural stereotypes explained success and failure. Quick-sketch caricatures have never been useful tools for forecasting the rise and fall of nations. The coronavirus has exposed them again as shallow thinking.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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