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SA vs the world: A Covid-19 comparison

map of the world, background, paper

By Aarti Bhana

Just how does South Africa compare to the rest of the world in how we’re dealing with Covid-19? It’s easy to get lost in our own problems as a country. But it’s useful to look at what others are doing – and how South Africa has performed.

explain.co.za is kicking off a series looking at how our country is dealing with the pandemic compared to others. In this piece, we compare world leaders.

In moments of crisis like these, it is a country’s leader who can make or break a nation’s fortunes. We looked at the available data, plus the sentiment in each country to determine how a leader from a selection of nations has performed.

We’re focusing on Italy, US, UK, India, Germany, Thailand and of course, South Africa.  The US and Germany have not ordered a lockdown, but we used their social distancing guidelines as a version of restriction/lockdown for the purpose of the comparision.

Check out our summary below and click through our index for the full country analysis. Look out for more to come in this series.

Video: How SA nailed its initial response

Country comparision: summary

africa, borders, country

South Africa

“South Africa seems to have acted faster, more efficiently, and more ruthlessly than many other countries around the world.” – BBC
uk, united kingdom, 3d

UK

“The international verdict on Boris Johnson and his zigzag handling of the pandemic has been damning, with responses ranging from bafflement and disbelief to anger.” 
trump, states, president

US

Donald Trump, who obsesses over the US stock market, is the classic example of a leader who tried to put the economy ahead of his people’s health and lives.
italy, flag, hand

Italy

“Italy’s response to the virus has been insufficient, and the reason cases in the country have spiked is that authorities were slow off the mark.”
aged, ancient, antique

India

A brutal lockdown twinned with poor testing rates makes India a possible Covid-19 explosion waiting to happen.
patriot, flag, pride

Germany

Angela Merkel planned and prepared Germany for the disaster – albeit with more resources. She’s ahead of the league but could have acted faster.
sculpture, dragons, golden

Thailand

Thailand’s military-minded Prime Minister acted fast but critics believe his dramatic measures – including a state of emergency – are a tactic to maintain power.

Graphics: comparision in numbers

Full country analysis

Italy

  • Population: 60 431 283 as at 2018 
  • GDP: US$ 2.084 trillion as at 2018 
  • First case: January 29
  • Lockdown date: 10 March 2020
  • Number of infections at lockdown: 10 149
  • Leader: Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte

Leadership sentiment: 

“Italy’s response to the virus has been insufficient, and the reason cases in the country have spiked is that authorities were slow off the mark.” 

The Guardian

When coronavirus landed on Italian shores at the end of January, leaders were confused and late to act. It took Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte nearly six weeks to order a national lockdown. By then the number of infections already passed 10 000. But since the lockdown, the number of infections and deaths have been slowing. Not dramatically, but evidence shows that the lockdown is actually helping. Italy’s lockdown has been extended and might be kept in place till after Easter. 

When the lockdown was announced – and even sometime before that – there was a sense that Conte did not act fast enough. People still went about their usual Italian-style socialising and were even confused about what they should be doing. 

With the lockdown extended, health experts are saying other countries should follow Italy’s model and ‘aggressive measures’ to contain the virus. 

Italy’s Prime Minister is taking it seriously and his attitude is trickling down to the people. They continue to show affection and solidarity, but from a distance – mostly.

Italian mayors have become viral sensations with their videos furiously telling people to STAY AT HOME.

Check it out here.

Nearly three weeks into its lockdown, Italy already has over 100 000 confirmed cases and is yet to reach its peak. But we have confidence in Conte.

Conte acknowledges that the country is facing its gravest moment since the second world war – adding that he is placing the health of his people before the budget. 

And there are other leaders who can definitely take a note from that. Experts say it’s not one or the other: letting your people suffer – as some countries have done to supposedly protect the economy – still spells bad news for the economy. A country’s economy and its citizens’ health are inextricably entwined.

United States

  • Population: 327 167 424 as at 2018 
  • GDP: US $ 20.544 trillion as at 2018
  • First Case: January 20 2020
  • Lockdown date: Introduced social distancing guidelines on March 16 2020
  • Infections at lockdown date: 4 596 
  • Leader: President Donald Trump

Leadership sentiment:

Trump, who obsesses over the US stock market as a barometer of his success as a president, is the classic example of a leader who tried to put the economy ahead of his people’s health and lives.

explain.co.za summary

There is no nice way to say this – but Trump screwed up BIG TIME with his initial handling of the virus.

Here’s three things that made everyone go: WTF.

  1. He suggested the virus was a hoax and downplayed the seriousness of it for a very long time. He, and some guys in his advisory team, likened it to the common flu. He said the US will ‘shake it off’ by Easter and that they had it all ‘under control’. We’re in April now, and the US has the highest number of cases IN THE WORLD! Read this to see how many times he called BS on the virus.
  2. He ordered social distancing guidelines, not a lockdown. And this was put in place considerably late – by then the US had over 4 000 cases. Even then he put the guidelines in place for a laughable 15 days, but he was FORCED to extend it till April 30.
  3. Trump was itching to ease restrictions on the 15 day slowdown and considered opening shops to fire up the economy. He tweeted that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem”. Some Wall Street executives agreed, some conservatives agreed too. 

Thankfully, a $2 trillion relief package came through to help Americans and also soften the blow on the economy.

But Trump is only BEGINNING to open his eyes.  

On 1 April he warned US citizens that the next two weeks will be really ‘painful’ after officials projected that deaths from the virus may hit a whopping 240 000

His speech was, for once, sober and realistic. 

But even with over 200 000 positive cases, there’s no lockdown in place and hospitals are running short of ventilators and protective gear. Images of nurses using trash bags and other unconventional items to protect themselves is not something to be proud of.. Trump was again slow to respond and has only recently decided to ramp up production of the necessary equipment. Read more here. 

Ford and General Electric joined forces quite early to build ventilators for the country because Trump came to the party too late. 

Over 30 state governors implemented stay-at-home orders and are being lauded for taking action while the White House slacks. This was after Trump told state governors to ‘fend for themselves’. New York State was the hardest hit.

A March 20 poll by ABC news showed that 55% of Americans are giving Trump the thumbs up for how he’s now handling things. That’s a 12% increase from about 10 days earlier. As some point out, it’s easy to improve one’s ratings when you start from such a low base. ?

United Kingdom 

  • Population: 66 488 991 as at 2018
  • GDP: US $ 2.855 trillion as at 2018
  • First Case: January 30 2020
  • Lockdown date: 23 March 2020
  • Infections at lockdown date:6650
  • Leader: Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Leadership sentiment: 

“The international verdict on Boris Johnson and his zigzag handling of the pandemic has been damning, with responses ranging from bafflement and disbelief to anger.” 

The Guardian

Things just got a whole lot harder for Boris Johnson since testing positive for Covid-19. He’s not the only big deal to get infected – even Prince Charles has the bug. Awks.
Like Trump, Johnson took far too long to respond to the crisis. His administration’s scientific advisors believed that the virus was only a ‘moderate’ risk.


But 30 000 cases in only nine weeks and one of the world’s highest death rates is definitely no moderate risk.


Johnson was so slow to act that bordering countries decided to take their own steps. This was to prevent Johnson’s inaction from rippling into their own nations. There’s that Brexit he was desperate for ?


A few examples:

  • France threatened to close its border with Britain if it did not intensify measures.
  • Greece repatriated some of its own students studying in the UK. Its capital even suspended all flights to Britain. 
  • An Italian Mayor – of one of the country’s worst-hit cities – decided to bring his two daughters home from England. He said the UK ‘is not taking coronavirus seriously’. 

The virus has been in the country for about two months. Authorities did not order schools to close immediately. There was even a moment where Johnson’s administration toyed with a ‘herd immunity’ policy. The policy suggested more than 60% of the population catch the virus and become immune.


We’re as horrified as you.

The policy may have caused widespread infection across the UK.

Johnson finally ordered a nationwide lockdown on March 23. This after his call for people to practise social distancing didn’t work. But he was confident at the time that the measures would help ‘turn the tide in 12 weeks’.


Meanwhile, the country’s testing has been lagging.

India 

  • Population: 1.353 billion as at 2018
  • GDP: US $ 2.719 trillion as at 2018
  • First Case: 29 January 2020
  • Lockdown date: 25 March 2020
  • Infections at lockdown: 657
  • Leader: Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Leadership sentiment:

A brutal lockdown twinned with poor testing rates make India a possible Covid-19 explosion waiting to happen.

explain.co.za summary

India’s case is pretty complicated. On March 24 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown. Here’s the kicker though – it would come into effect four hours later!

There was no time to prepare and go shopping. At the time of the lockdown, there were over 600 cases in India. Compared to the above nations, that’s not so bad.. Right? 

But dig a bit deeper and something just doesn’t add up. 

India reported its first case of Covid-19 at the end of January – but somehow the numbers have not increased as fast as other nations… Is Modi that good? 

Well, no. 

India’s testing rate is really poor. According to this site tracking testing across the world, India conducted only 38 442 tests, by March 30. This is for a population of like 1.3 billion people. That’s bad.

So, there’s probably a lot more people walking around with the virus who just don’t know it. 

There are reports of people being turned away from government institutions. Plus there’s a backlog on approvals for test-kits.

Once India plays catch-up, the numbers might explode. And then the hospitals won’t cope.

But what about the man in charge?

Modi, despite his dangerous Hindu nationalism, has some charm and influence. He can change the nation’s behaviour. His lockdown measures even earned him the praise of some international public health experts.

The lockdown is the country’s ‘singular hope’ to contain the virus. Like South Africa, its health systems will not be able to handle a large-scale outbreak.  

A majority of India’s population is poor and don’t have access to proper housing, sanitation and even healthcare. Many live in confined spaces, making social distancing impossible. 

So how does Modi rank as a leader?

The images of millions of Indian citizens leaving cities by foot, thanks to the abrupt curfew twinned with the ban on public and private transport, show Modi’s troubling attitude to the poor.

Modi admitted that his abrupt decree would create “a very difficult time for poor people”. But that’s an understatement. Iconic Indian activist and author, Arundhati Roy, wrote a searing critique of Modi’s actions. Read it here.

Germany

  • Population: 82 927 922 as at 2018
  • GDP: US $ 3.948 trillion as at 2018
  • First Case: 26 January 2020
  • Lockdown date: 22 March 2020 – issued a ban on gatherings 
  • Infections at lockdown: 24 873
  • Leader: Chancellor Angela Merkel 

Leadership sentiment: 

Merkel planned and prepared Germany for the disaster – albeit with more resources. She’s ahead of the league but could have acted faster.

explain.co.za summary

Germany is way ahead of some of its peers in attitude. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is a scientist by training, has a pretty good grasp of the virus. In early March she said that as much as 70% of Germans could contract the virus – one of the first world leaders to acknowledge how serious things could get.

So, compared to the UK and the US – she’s been handling the situation quite well. The country, however, took longer than it should have to act – perhaps driven by a culture of consensus that takes time.

Germany closed its borders with surrounding countries in mid-March but was arguably slow to order social distancing measures and banning events. At the time of writing, the country has more than 75 000 cases and over 900 deaths. Like the US, Merkel did not order a lockdown, Instead, she ordered a contact ban on March 22. The number of infections were at 24 000. The ban has been extended to April 30. 

That’s a small measure for such a high number. 

But there is one thing that Merkel is doing right. And that’s testing. 

Germany is testing nearly 120 000 people A DAY. Even though it proves the infection is spreading, it does give her a better sense of how to control the situation. In this sense, Germany is far ahead of its European counterparts.  

Germany’s other advantage is its health system. It has both private and public options and spends a lot on patients. Compared to other European nations, it has sufficient beds, and a high nurse rate. 

People are treated well and early. That’s why the country’s death rate is relatively low. 

Read more here.   

Thailand 

  • Population: 69 428 524
  • GDP : US $ 504.993 billion 
  • First Case: January 12
  • Lockdown date: 22 March 2020
  • Infections at lockdown: 599
  • Leader: Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha

Leader sentiment: 

Thailand’s military-minded Prime Minister acted fast but critics believe his dramatic measures – including a state of emergency – are a tactic to maintain power.

explain.co.za summary

Thanks in part to its history in fighting similar viruses like SARS, Thailand is doing well. The virus has been spreading at a slow pace and a lot of measures have been put into place. From the first case in mid-January to date, Thailand has over 1 800 cases and 15 deaths. 

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was a former army commander who seized power in a 2014 coup – a common occurrence in the country. Thailand initially had the virus under control. It was only in early March that Thailand started seeing the number of infections increase exponentially. This was in part due to a boxing event that many people attended. 

Using his skills from his past life, Prayut acted almost immediately. He has put at least four orders into place within a week.

  • Requested all travellers entering the country to present medical certificates and health insurance.
  • On March 22, all public events, gatherings and schools were ordered to close. This wasn’t a full lockdown – travelling was still allowed. 
  • Only four days later, Prayut declared a state of emergency, giving his government power to ban travel, censor media and impose curfews. 
  • From April 3, a nationwide curfew between 10pm and 4am will kick in.

But Prayut has faced criticism for acting for political gain. 

An article in Asia Times claims that the only reason Prayut imposed the emergency lockdown was to out-do Bangkok Governor Ashwin Kwanmuang’s 21 day ‘soft lockdown’ on Bangkok – and that Prayut’s impulsive actions could damage Thailand’s democracy. 

The article goes on to describe the coalition government’s response as ‘erratic if not corrupt, characterised by flip-flop policy pronouncements, official mask hoarding and contradictory messaging from ministries.” Read more here. 

Thailand’s authorities have also been criticized for poor communication. The impulsive orders, only days apart, ran the risk of sending citizens set the country into panic mode.

South Africa

  • Population: 57 779 622
  • GDP: US $ 368.289 billion
  • First Case: 4 March 2020
  • Lockdown date: 26 March 2020
  • Infections at lockdown: 274, later revised to 927
  • Leader: Cyril Ramaphosa

Leader sentiment:

South Africa seems to have acted faster, more efficiently, and more ruthlessly than many other countries around the world.”

BBC

The number of cases is increasing but our leadership was very quick to react.

A week after the first case was reported, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster, banning gatherings, closing schools, and even imposing a curfew on the sale of alcohol. At this point, South Africa had 61 cases. 

Eight days later, the number topped 200 and the President announced a nationwide lockdown. From then on the numbers just kept rising and rising. At the time of writing, we have five reported deaths and over 1 000 cases. 

Ramaphosa delivered a widely lauded address that covered nearly every base. He told South Africans to brace themselves as numbers could increase into the 1000s and even 100 000s. He proved that he was prepared to take on this challenge, restoring confidence in his leadership in many quarters.  Even the BBC believes South Africa is doing well compared to the rest of the world.

Ramaphosa set up the Solidarity Fund, cajoled several of South Africa’s billionaires to donate hefty amounts, allowed for tax rebates and announced homes and shelters for vulnerable women and children. Ramaphosa proved to be decisive in the face of a crisis and we like this colour on him. 

BUT like India, South Africa suffers from systemic shortages of basic services like water, proper housing and sanitation. Our healthcare system too is frail. 

Images of people lining up in front of stores, despite the lockdown, and bouts of police and army bullying was not a good image for South Africa,

But Ramaphosa has persevered. This week he announced that the government would be rolling out additional screening and testing measures in villages and townships. Mobile units will be going door to door to test people. South Africa also plans to conduct as many as 30 000 tests a day by mid-April. It’s an ambitious plan, but we stan!

The ideas are noble and the execution has largely been good so far. Let’s hope it stays that way.

UPDATE: On 9 April 2020 Ramaphosa extended the country’s lockdown till the end of April.

We pulled population and GDP data from the World Bank for the purposes of this analysis. The data dates back to 2018.