The high-stakes fight against coronavirus

As anxiety about the coronavirus outbreak continues to mount, it's worth taking a step back and looking at how different countries have handled this global health emergency. Here's a quick roundup:

China bungled its early response to the new and deadly virus when it first emerged in the city of Wuhan in December. It's only just now starting to get things back under control after a severe crackdown that imposed huge economic and social costs on its 1.4 billion-strong population. Contrast China's aggressive and apparently effective measures with those of Iran, where an authoritarian government exacerbated its early mistakes by refusing to cordon off infected areas and – allegedly – covering up the true number of cases, resulting in a sharply climbing death toll.


Asian democracies with strong central governments and competent, technocratic bureaucracies have fared relatively well during the outbreak. To date, Taiwan has managed to keep the outbreak to a few dozen cases by steadily expanding tests, travel restrictions, and quarantines as the scope of the emergency became clearer in January and February. Singapore has managed a similarly effective response – a necessity given its proximity and economic ties with the Chinese mainland. South Korea was hit hard early on, but appears to have avoided the need for a China-style crackdown by rapidly expanding testing and mobilizing its strong pandemic preparedness resources. Other countries are now looking to replicate these efforts.

Italy was caught off-guard by how quickly the virus spread across its northern industrial heartland. A few weeks ago, it had just a handful of cases. Now it has the highest reported death toll of any country outside of China. This week, the government launched the most aggressive crackdown so far of any Western democracy, including sharp restrictions on travel and banning public gatherings. (Still, that falls short of the "wartime" conditions imposed in Wuhan, where residents were subject to door-to-door health checks and sick people were herded into quarantine camps). Meanwhile, cases in France, Spain, and Germany are growing fast. More aggressive measures to slow the spread of the disease in these countries may also become increasingly likely in coming days.

Then there's the US. Although the Trump administration imposed restrictions on travel to and from China and Iran by early February, the broader US response has been hampered by a lack of access to testing kits (which the administration initially refused to accept from the WHO) and muddled (to put it kindly) messaging from the White House. On Monday, a former national security official who used to head pandemic preparedness at the White House before his position was cut in 2018 warned that time was running out for authorities to get the outbreak under control.

Bottom line: Governments that missed their initial chance to contain the threat can still make up lost ground – but at a heavy cost. In both cases, competent authorities and solid public health strategies are only part of the solution. The other big variable is whether citizens themselves support governments and work with them – as seems to be the case in many of the Asian countries – or disregard and distrust them. With the virus bearing down on a widening swathe of Europe and the United States, we will soon find out a lot more about how well the Western democracies cope with this challenge.

Brazil's governors take on Bolsonaro: We've previously written about the tensions between local and national governments over coronavirus response, but few places have had it as bad as Brazil. As COVID-19 infections surged in Brazil, the country's governors quickly mobilized – often with scarce resources – to enforce citywide lockdowns. Brazil's gangs have even risen to the occasion, enforcing strict curfews to limit the virus' spread in Rio de Janeiro. But Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, has mocked the seriousness of the disease and urged states to loosen quarantines in order to get the economy up and running again. "Put the people to work," he said this week, "Preserve the elderly; preserve those who have health problems. But nothing more than that." In response, governors around the country – including some of his allies – issued a joint letter to the president, begging him to listen to health experts and help states contain the virus. The governor of Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic powerhouse, has even threatened to sue the federal government if Bolsonaro continues to undermine his efforts to combat the virus' spread.

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Governments of the developed world are finally responding with due sense of urgency, individually in 3 different ways.

1st, stand health care systems up so they won't get overwhelmed (late responses). The private & public sector together, building additional ICU beds, supply capacity and production of medical equipment and surge medical personnel in the US, Canada, across Europe & the UK. Unclear if we avoid a Northern Italy scenario. A couple days ago, Dr. Fauci from the NIH said he was hopeful. Epidemiologists and critical care doctors don't feel comfortable. Not in New York, Chicago, LA, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans. In Europe, particularly London, Madrid, Catalonia, Barcelona, might be significantly short.

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The major outbreaks of coronavirus in China, Europe, and the United States have garnered the most Western media attention in recent weeks. Yesterday, we went behind the headlines to see how Mexico and Russia are faring. Today, we'll look at three other potential hotspots where authorities and citizens are now contending with the worst global pandemic in a century.

Start with India. For weeks, coronavirus questions hovered above that other country with a billion-plus people, a famously chaotic democracy where the central government can't simply order a Chinese-scale public lockdown with confidence that it will be respected. It's a country where 90 percent of people work off the books— without a minimum wage, a pension, a strong national healthcare system, or a way to work from home.

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In the end, it took the coronavirus to break the year-long deadlock in Israeli politics. Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu will still face corruption charges, but he has yet another new lease on political life, as he and political rival Benny Gantz cut a deal yesterday: Bibi will continue as prime minister, with Gantz serving as Speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. After 18 months, Gantz will take over as prime minister, but many doubt that will ever happen.

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