The short shelf life of pandemic national success stories
The writer, Morgan Stanley Investment Management’s chief global strategist, is author of ‘The Ten Rules of Successful Nations’
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 US and UK were chastised for incompetent responses led by “illiberal populists” and inspired by a clueless “faith in their national greatness.” Now they are widely praised for rapid vaccine rollouts, and feted as the safest places to vacation this summer.
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. No one is calling the US a “third world” country now.
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 Organization, 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.
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, including the coronavirus. Or so the story was told. Last month, Thailand was hit and India slammed by surging caseloads.
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, many Swedes were said to be solitary types, a natural form of social distancing. Cases spiked anyway last fall and Sweden’s own king declared its strategy a failure.
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 co-operative federalism. Others lauded 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 case load than the US 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 US than Canada. The Canadian daily case count has shot above the US one. Canadians profess a “humbling” new admiration for American medical know how. So do some Europeans. But history will judge how nations fared over the full course of the pandemic, not in May of 2021.
True, the virus has not shattered “the already battered idea of American exceptionalism”, as many 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 plays out.
Vaccines may indeed be the miracle weapon that finally wins this battle. The US Centers for Disease Control is however 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.
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.
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