SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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ADRIAN MA, HOST:
The pandemic has affected every country in the world. But which of these countries has been the most resilient in the face of this crisis? And if you were to rank all the countries, which ones would come out on top?
DARIAN WOODS, HOST:
Back in late 2020, a group of journalists at Bloomberg News decided to try and answer this question. They looked at 53 countries with the world's biggest economies. They then crunched the data on everything from COVID deaths to the quality of life to economic recovery. And they came up with a running list, and they called it its COVID resilience ranking.
RACHEL CHANG: At the beginning, it was very much a bit of a shot in the dark.
WOODS: Rachel Chang oversees virus coverage for Bloomberg's Asia Desk. She says in the beginning, this project had its skeptics, including her own husband.
CHANG: He actually was like, it's really mean to, like, rank countries. You know, like, that was kind of really his perspective was, people are dying. And it's like, yes, people are dying. But that's precisely why we're trying to do this because we do think that there's things that can be learned from which places are performing the best because those lessons can save lives.
MA: And what Rachel and her team learned from doing this ranking for over a year and a half was that certain countries almost seemed to have a magic formula when it came to dealing with the pandemic. They called them the pandemic MVPs.
This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Adrian Ma.
WOODS: And I'm Darian Woods. Today on the show - the three qualities that they shared that helped them balance all the different trade-offs inside a pandemic arguably better than anybody else.
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MA: United Arab Emirates, Canada and Finland - according to Bloomberg's resilience ranking, those countries were the pandemic MVPs. And that is because in Bloomberg's ranking, they never fell into the bottom half of the list.
WOODS: Now, of course, the UAE, Canada and Finland are very different places with different cultures. They're on different continents. But Rachel says these countries shared three fundamental qualities that helped them manage the pandemic. The first of these qualities was something kind of fuzzy but really important - its high levels of societal trust and cohesion.
CHANG: You know, trust in what the government and the scientists were saying, like, a willingness to comply, a belief of the individual that they are part of this bigger community.
MA: Yeah. Rachel says this cultural mindset made a big difference early in the pandemic.
CHANG: This was the stage of the pandemic where it was what they call non-pharmaceutical intervention. Like, they really relied on people to wear masks, to wash their hands, you know, to socially distance, to be - to stay away from high-risk people.
WOODS: And all of these things are more effective if people are willing to go along. And that's why in the fall of 2020, places like the U.S. struggled in the rankings. Pandemic precautions were politicized. Different places had different policies. And that wasn't as much the case with the UAE and Canada and Finland.
MA: Just as a tiny illustration, you know how, like, in the U.S. we have the motto, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Well, in Canada, their motto is peace, order and good government.
WOODS: OK. It doesn't exactly rouse the heartstrings, but, you know, it's useful in a pandemic. The second part of the pandemic MVP formula may not come as a surprise. There's no avoiding it. It is wealth. In general, richer countries have better health systems and more money to buy and distribute vaccines.
CHANG: I think what we saw come to the fore was very much wealth. You know, the poorer countries were not able to get their hands on any shots at all.
MA: But the pandemic MVPs - they had the money and the infrastructure to get vaccines out to the public. And when you combine that with the social cohesion we just mentioned, you get a situation where the government can say, like, hey, people, please get vaccinated so you can go to restaurants and stores. And people will be like, yeah, OK.
CHANG: So what we saw was this bounce back of economic and social activity but with fatalities remaining quite low because it was all tied to vaccination. So that was very much the strategy that was pioneered, I think, in Europe, in the Middle East, in some of these places, and very quickly became the right strategy.
WOODS: Let's look at the U.S. It's a rich country with advanced health technology. I mean, just think about Operation Warp Speed. You know, this was the Trump administration initiative that was paying pharma companies to develop COVID vaccines. And, you know, it worked. And the U.S. was at the front of the line. Canada was buying vaccines from the U.S.
MA: And what this meant was, for a moment in summer 2021, the U.S. climbed to the top of Bloomberg's ranking. But it didn't last long.
CHANG: What we saw was that some places like the U.S. really hit a plateau in vaccination. Everybody sort of thought that was it, right? OK, the vaccines are here. We're going to be saved by these, like, magical mRNAs. And it actually didn't end up being the case at all because the U.S., being a very good example, you know, opened up so quickly. Life was back to normal June 2021. And then the delta variant swept through. And delta was horrible. The most economically powerful places on earth totally crumbled when this thing came through.
MA: Having a vaccine available could only do so much when a lot of people were not willing to take it. Money, scientific prowess - it wasn't enough to make the U.S. a pandemic MVP.
WOODS: And now the third part of the magic formula. Rachel says it's adaptability. So she thinks that Singapore is a really good example here. So early on in the pandemic, they had very strict lockdowns, and they had quarantines for travelers coming into the country. But eventually, Singapore shifted tacks. It combined reopening measures with vaccine mandates.
CHANG: They would send people to knock on the doors of, like, old people who were refusing to get their shots and stuff like that - you know, really, like, a full-court press on getting the vaccination up. And then once those levels reached above 90%, then they opened up - in that sense, get the best of both worlds with those sorts of strategies, right? And they - and that's because they adapted.
MA: Now, compare that with China. For a variety of reasons, China has been relatively inflexible. And it starts with the fact that they've been trying to keep COVID cases and COVID deaths as low as possible by focusing on strict lockdowns - like literally locking down people in their apartments for weeks, plus forcing COVID-positive people into these quarantine centers. And then there's the fact that China refused to approve mRNA vaccines from the West and instead has been relying on its own less effective vaccine.
WOODS: At the same time, China's vaccination rates among the elderly is relatively low. And now China is in the situation that if it does open up, it could see huge spikes in COVID deaths. So overall, the government's COVID containment strategy has taken a huge toll economically and socially. And that's why China was near the bottom of the last Bloomberg ranking.
CHANG: The inability to adapt in terms of strategy became a massive Achilles' heel for these places that were initially so successful because the pandemic changed, and the virus changed.
WOODS: All right. So there you go - three qualities of pandemic MVPs - social cohesion, wealth and adaptability. A few weeks ago, Bloomberg decided to close the book on this project, but Rachel hopes the lessons from it will inform policymakers.
CHANG: It was very much a massive project - blood, sweat and tears. And, you know, it's over now. And I kind of hope that it doesn't have to come back, but we'll see.
MA: And in case you were wondering where the U.S. ended up overall in the ranking, it was not great. Out of 53 countries on the list, it was No. 36. So it was in the bottom third.
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WOODS: The show was produced by Jamila Huxtable, and it was engineered by Debbie Daughtry. Kathryn Yang checked the facts. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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