Small nations offer vital lessons on handling the pandemic
One day, when the world has finally vanquished the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and its various strains and researchers prepare a manual to deal with any future pandemic, they are almost certain to highlight three tiny nations: Israel, Singapore and Bhutan. All three have emerged relatively unscathed from the pandemic, at least so far, by either controlling the virus’s spread or rolling out nationwide vaccination programs that have proven to be among the most effective and rapid in the world — or both.
However, besides their size, the three nations are very different and have their own characteristics, some of which have played in their favor and some have been a hindrance. Take Singapore for instance. This nation, with its 5.8 million people, is one of the biggest finance and trading hubs in the world and is visited by tens of millions of visitors from all over the world each year. Yet it was able to contain the pandemic in a matter of weeks.
Singapore recorded its first case in February 2020 and saw a real increase in April, when daily infections shot up to just under 1,500. For about four months, the number of daily infections stayed upward of 400. But after Aug. 8 the numbers collapsed rapidly, almost to single digits and later on to just a few isolated cases. So far, Singapore has recorded a little over 61,000 cases and just 31 deaths.
Medical experts say there are several reasons behind its rapid and efficient control of the virus. One is the fast response of the government. It announced a lockdown that lasted from April 7 to June 1 last year, while also conducting an aggressive testing campaign. The country’s robust healthcare system, funded by a generous social security setup, helped ensure that the population was tested as quickly as possible.
But the biggest factor was that Singapore had faced the SARS pandemic two decades earlier and it used the lessons learned from that outbreak to create a blueprint to deal with COVID-19. Due to SARS, the country already knew how to control infections. Also, as Singapore is a small country, geographically and demographically, it was able to respond quickly to combat COVID-19. The government closed borders and enforced social distancing and the wearing of masks. It also launched a contact tracing app in March last year that was mandatory for anyone wanting to use stores, hospitals or even public transport. Empty buildings and exhibition grounds were turned into isolation centers and hotels used for the quarantining of visitors.
It is also important to note that the residents of the country cooperated with the government in beating back the pandemic and, as a result, it has been open fully for its residents since June last year. It has even begun running cruises for domestic customers. Singapore was also the first Asian nation to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and it began its vaccination campaign as early as Jan. 15. So far, it has administered more than 2.2 million doses, covering about 40 percent of the population. As the infection seems to be under control, the country may not need to vaccinate its entire population.
About 3,200 km northeast of Singapore lies another success story, the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan. The two nations stand at opposite ends of the economic development spectrum. While Singapore is one of the richest and most-developed nations in the world, boasting flat terrain and being extremely well connected to the world, Bhutan is among the poorest and least-developed nations. It is entirely mountainous and has poor connectivity, both inside and outside the country.
Yet Bhutan has also managed the pandemic in an exemplary manner. The virus hit the country in late March 2020, but again rapid action by the state and a cooperative population that holds the king and the government in high esteem ensured that it was controlled from early on. As a result, Bhutan’s daily infection rates have stayed below 40 throughout, with no cases reported at all on most days. In total, it has had only 1,144 cases and just one death.
Despite such numbers, which the leaders of most other nations would be delighted with, the Bhutan government did not become complacent and so it made extensive preparations for a smooth vaccination rollout. Though it received 150,000 doses as gifts, mainly from India in January, it spent another two months preparing for the right moment to launch its jabs campaign. Finally, the rollout began on March 27 and, within 15 days, about 60 percent of the population had been vaccinated. The government used all its might to vaccinate the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time. It used military helicopters to transport vaccines to different parts of the country and its health workers trekked over mountains to be ready for March 27. As a result, Bhutan rivals Israel in terms of the proportion of its population that has received at least one dose, with 62.3 percent, just behind Israel’s 62.5 percent.
The case study of Israel is more mitigated than Singapore or Bhutan. The country, and especially its leader Benjamin Netanyahu, were rather lax when the pandemic arrived in February 2020, as the first wave was rather mild, with daily infection rates staying below 1,000 and a lockdown keeping it that way. However, by the summer of last year, the infection rate began shooting up dramatically, reaching a high of 11,300 on Sept. 23. This led to another lockdown, which sent the rates tumbling again. But, by December, the rates soared again as a third wave captured the country, leading to yet another lockdown.
But where it failed in curbing infections, Israel succeeded in terms of vaccinations. It began vaccinating fairly early, in mid-December, and it did so at a fierce pace, with the result being that, within three months, about 60 percent of its population had been given a first dose, way ahead of other countries.
The Bhutan government used all its might to vaccinate the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time.
Ranvir S. Nayar
However, controversy has also dogged the Israeli vaccination plan, mainly due to its flagrant discrimination against the 5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Israel’s vaccine rollout has so far only covered Israeli citizens — including Israeli settlers living inside the West Bank — and the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. The Israeli Ministry of Health has not yet publicly formulated an allocation policy that includes reserving doses for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, nor has it established a timeline for the disbursement of these vaccines to the Palestinian health authorities.
These are just three examples of how smaller countries, from completely different backgrounds, have succeeded in confronting COVID-19.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.