How Gulf states tackled COVID-19 more effectively than the West

How Gulf states tackled COVID-19 more effectively than the West

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A medic takes a swab from a man during drive-thru COVID-19 testing, Abu Dhabi, UAE, March 30, 2020. (Reuters)

Ten months on from the appearance of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) — and 44 million confirmed cases and 1.1 million deaths later — it is time to ask why some nations have fared so much better than others in the battle against the virus.
Among the better-performing nations is the UAE and its record will be closely studied by researchers striving to prepare the world to cope better with the next microbial assault that will inevitably come our way.
Meanwhile, the US is among the unexpected losers. It has had by far the largest number of cases of COVID-19 worldwide — more than 9 million, or 20 percent of the global total. Its tally of over 230,000 deaths is also the world’s largest. Both figures are out of proportion to the size of its population of 330 million. India has had almost as many cases, but shared among a population four times larger, and its death toll of 120,000 is only about half that of America’s.
Equally stark is the contrast between the impact of the pandemic in Western nations, particularly the US and the UK, and the Gulf. In the West, a fatal blend of political self-interest and dithering indecision has slowed and sabotaged timely responses. The GCC governments, unencumbered by unwieldy political systems, have been able to respond far more swiftly to the pandemic — and none more so than the UAE.
The UAE reported its first infection on Jan. 29. The number of daily cases rose steadily, peaking at 994 on May 23, before falling and bottoming out at 164 at the beginning of August. Since then, the daily case rate has continued to creep back up, to an all-time high of 1,578 on Oct. 23. As of Wednesday, the UAE had recorded a total of 129,000 cases and 485 deaths.
The rise in the number of daily cases is the product of two factors: Increased testing, which has inevitably detected more infections, and the gradual reopening of the economy, which has unavoidably led to an increase in transmission. Crucially, however, the rise in cases has not led to a proportional increase in deaths.
But looking at only total numbers of cases and deaths gives a distorted impression of how a nation has fared. By this measure, the UAE’s total number of cases makes it the 38th worst-affected country in the world. On a table measuring mortality, its 485 deaths put it in 83rd position.
Assessing just how effective a country’s response has been means looking at the number of cases, deaths and other statistics per head of population. With 12,995 cases per million of population, the UAE is in 43rd position in the world, and with a record considerably better than four of its five GCC neighbors, including Qatar (the second-worst nation globally, with 46,990 cases per million). By this measure, only Saudi Arabia, in 62nd position with 9,879 cases per million people, has marginally outperformed the UAE.
The number of deaths suffered by any country should also be seen in relation to the size of its population. The UAE’s total number of fatalities represents a rate of just 49 per million head of population — far below the global average of 150. By this measure, the UAE has performed better than 108 other countries, including the US and all the major European states.

GCC governments, unencumbered by unwieldy political systems, have been able to respond far more swiftly.

Jonathan Gornall

The UAE has consistently outperformed much of the world in limiting the devastation caused by the disease. How? One part of the answer can be found in the UAE’s well-developed health care system, which is blessed with world-class clinics and hospitals backed by an insurance system that ensures patients have access to the best expertise and equipment available. Even that, however, would have meant little had the UAE not acted swiftly and intelligently right from the outset to limit the impact of the pandemic.
In February, all 18 countries in the region were subject to an external evaluation of their national pandemic action plans by the World Health Organization, and only one scored the maximum possible points: The UAE. That preparation has been evident in every timely step the UAE has taken throughout the pandemic. From the early imposition of travel controls to the closure of schools and workplaces, the UAE has been ahead of the game.
As the experience of the US, the UK and much of the rest of Europe has shown, when it comes to confronting an unprecedented threat on the scale of the coronavirus pandemic, countries with a political class that is focused — even in the midst of a global crisis — on the next election rather than on the common good are bad for their people’s health.

  • Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. @Syndication Bureau
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