Why is it challenging to adopt successful strategies of other countries to control the COVID-19 pandemic?
Over a year, governments across the globe are adopting measures to overcome the pandemic. While the apparent measures like masks, social distancing, quarantine and vaccination are commonly known, the pandemic still prevails. So far, a few countries have efficiently controlled the outbreak, but most of them haven’t. When the knowledge about the virus and ways to contain it is globally shared, it is interesting to ponder why some nations could contain the virus and others could not? Moreover, what stops the countries still battling the pandemic to imitate the successful strategies adopted by other countries? To understand this, it is critical to identify the complexities that amplify or mitigate contagious diseases. The virus and the disease are separate from each other. The contagion coronavirus that spread at the onset of the pandemic was the same, but the disease COVID-19 is a social construct. The way different socio-economic actors of a nation managed COVID-19 determined the severity of the disease in that nation.
A pandemic does not only bring health concerns but also difficulties around national economics, health infrastructure, individual finances, employment, healthy habits and communication. Countries respond to such complexities based on their deepest social, cultural and moral values. These core values are the patterns of judgements of what is good and bad as per the various country actors like the government, citizens, entrepreneurs, political parties etc. Not everybody’s values are given importance, but the collective predominant values shape the country’s response to the disease. Such a response either mitigates or exacerbates the pandemic. To understand this, let’s look at two different countries like China and the US.
China successfully controlled the pandemic by mid of 2020, and there are fewer cases since then. The Chinese government implemented Regulations and Preparedness for the Response to Emergent Public Health Hazards. Based on the prior SARS and MERS outbreak experience, the government swiftly enforced stringent measures like the travel ban, quarantine, masks, distribution of essential supplies to the communities, construction of huge hospitals within weeks to address the surge in infections and also provided economic support to the affected businesses. China’s measures also excessively relied on AI-based contact tracing. The government used surveillance as a means to shape the behaviour of its citizens. There was pervasive use of technology to control the spread of misinformation on digital platforms. Even if the citizens felt the extreme intrusion of their privacy and feared that such surveillance could become the new normal post-pandemic, the government adhered to its communitarian approach in the national interest. It assumed authoritarianism and imposed such surveillance to save the country from multidimensional pandemic losses.
On the other hand, the US, which was identified by Global Health Security Index in 2019 as a country with the most prepared health capabilities, has the most infections worldwide till date. The US being a democratic country, seeks to be inclusive of various social actors while implementing measures for COVID-19. Some social actors like the businesses and their employees who value money favoured opening up the economy to prevent financial losses. Some liberal citizens valued their freedom and did not support primary measures like social distancing, masks and quarantine. Different states in the US adopted various policies to control the outbreak, but the lack of inter-state coordination added to the spike in cases for the whole nation. Such instances left the decision-makers at crossroads between managing public expectations and public health crisis despite being the most developed country.
Recovery from this pandemic is social responsibility. It requires all actors to adhere to basic guidelines and hygiene habits for not just themselves but also for society. However, diverse interests and values make it challenging for the actors to cooperate. The strategies adopted by China helped curb the infection but has potential consequences of excessive surveillance post-pandemic in which the citizens might not have a say. Whereas the US did what the majority valued but could not control the disease. Understanding the social construction of disease may not tell us the best contextual crisis mitigation strategy for a country, but indeed it explains why the disease outcomes differ across nations.