25 January 2021

Quick Take – Diverging Global Responses to COVID-19

Governments around the world have all pursued markedly different approaches to tackling the rampant coronavirus pandemic. Almost one year on since billions around the world were plunged into initial lockdowns, some countries are now experiencing a second or third wave, with hospitals and health care systems at risk of being overwhelmed. In contrast, other governments have pursued measures which have enabled community transmission to be eliminated. For those countries most affected, a wide-scale vaccine rollout is on the horizon with a race against time underway to inoculate those most vulnerable. 

The United Kingdom is currently experiencing greater hospital numbers and COVID-19 related deaths than during the initial peak in April 2020. The government has come under fire for its disjointed response to tackling the virus, a failed test and trace system, and accusations of cronyism in awarding contracts for the provision of PPE. The US is experiencing a similar rise in infections and fatalities, with December being the deadliest month of the pandemic so far. The second wave has also had a greater impact in Africa, as the fatality rate has risen above the global average for the first time since the pandemic began. 

However, for countries who have eliminated community transmission, life continues relatively untouched by the pandemic. In countries such as New Zealand, large festivals and events are taking place, as the government seeks to focus on tight border control and ensuring that there is a comprehensive track and trace system in place. The country has not recorded a case of community transmission since 18 November 2020. 

Despite the government’s failure to manage the virus, the UK has had success with its vaccination drive, with three vaccines thus far receiving fast-tracked regulatory approval, and over 6 million people have received their first dose. In the US and the EU, the rollout has been slower due to issues with procurement while regulators have been slower to grant approval. 

However, developed nations and drug-makers are also facing criticism for adopting individualized approaches and failing to commit to an equitable distribution of vaccines. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned that “the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.” 

The WHO has set up COVAX, a vaccine sharing platform, however, the initiative has so far struggled to get off the ground as wealthier nations such as the UK and Canada have purchased excess doses at the expense of poorer nations. The rush to buy doses is a product of skyrocketing infection rates and crumbling healthcare systems in many Western nations, but there is a serious concern that an unequal global rollout will allow the virus to freely spread and mutate in parts of the world that are left unvaccinated.

More transmissible COVID-19 variants from the UK and South Africa have already emerged. Many European countries who had previously resisted such measures are finally tightening their border controls in an effort to reduce the spread of the new strains. As countries continue to grapple with death tolls that are higher than that of the initial peak, it is evident that the vaccine won’t be an immediate panacea and lockdown restrictions and social distancing measures in those countries hardest hit look set to continue. 

As the global death toll continues to climb, questions are invariably going to be raised as to whether developed nations could have done more to limit the human and economic damage within their own borders, whilst ensuring access to vaccines in less wealthy countries. 

By Kate Primrose

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