Why poor states fight virus better than rich ones

Ideas

Why poor states fight virus better than rich ones

The example of Europe reveals how a stable recent history is just what isn’t needed in this time of crisis

Camilla Tominey
A Georgian serviceman washes a van at a checkpoint, after authorities tightened measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, in Marneuli near Tbilisi, Georgia.
Wash and learn A Georgian serviceman washes a van at a checkpoint, after authorities tightened measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, in Marneuli near Tbilisi, Georgia.
Image: Reuters/Irakli Gedenidze

The Global Health Security Index, which measures a country’s ability to cope with disease, did not look particularly favourably on Georgia before the Covid-19 outbreak. Ranked 42nd for preparedness in 2019, it appeared a minnow compared with Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. Yet Georgia stands out among the European crowd as one that has coped unexpectedly well with the pandemic.

Only on Saturday did it report its first coronavirus death, with 157 cases that all appeared to have been imported or directly related to imported cases. The situation is similar in Latvia – where the first death of a 99-year-old woman was recorded on Friday – and neighbouring Slovakia (one death), Belarus (four deaths), Lithuania (10 deaths) and Estonia (13 deaths). Meanwhile, the death toll continues to soar in comparatively richer western European countries such as the UK, France, Spain and Italy.

Why?

While the smaller populations of some eastern European nations must be taken into account, recent experience of emergencies seems to have stood them in better stead. Giorgi Gakharia, the Georgian prime minister, said it was not just down to its “early and decisive executive action” but because “Georgians have experienced and overcome adversity throughout history”.

As Alexander Scrivener, of the Eurasia Democratic Security Network, explained in a recent paper: “Being rich doesn’t guarantee effective policy in a time of crisis. Early signs are that wealthier European countries have tended to respond less effectively than poorer ones, at least initially.”

Comparing Georgia with the Netherlands, which confirmed their first cases at roughly the same time in February, he theorised that “the real number of Dutch cases is in the tens of thousands, while Georgia is likely still in double figures” because the former closed its borders and ordered strict social distancing while the latter’s reaction was “highly complacent”. Only when the deaths started mounting did the Dutch government begin to act and introduce, largely voluntary, social distancing. As in Sweden, the Dutch now face criticism for their lackadaisical approach.

Scrivener puts the differing approaches down to the fact that countries with a “recent memory” of major societal crisis have responded much more proactively.

“What links the Asian countries that have so effectively contained the virus, post-communist states like Georgia and austerity-battered southern European countries like Greece, is recent memory of crisis. Conversely, countries that have enjoyed relative calm and prosperity, like the UK, USA and the Netherlands, were notably slow to even recognise the threat.”

Prof Kataryna Wolczuk, at the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies, pointed out that, post independence in 1991, the Georgian population had to grow used to regular electricity “blackouts” and having to bribe doctors for treatment. “They know they have to self-preserve and they cannot afford to be blasé. Now medical professionals, the police and the military are no longer corrupt in Georgia, they are put on a pedestal. If a doctor says something then the people of Georgia will listen and obey.” She said this was in marked contrast to the likes of Russia, Turkey, Poland, Hungary and Belarus, where mistrust of those governments meant fewer people tended to follow the guidance. 

Igor Grazin, a major force in the Estonian independence movement, added: “A country like Estonia that has fought for independence protects its borders better than many others. We have spent years preparing for Russian invasion, so by comparison coronavirus isn’t that difficult.”

A state of emergency was declared in Estonia on March 13 after Covid-19 was brought to Saaremaa island by an Italian volleyball club. Gatherings were banned, schools and universities closed and border control was restored with health checks at entry points.

Grazin added: “Smaller countries like ours, because we can’t contribute troops and tanks like the UK, France and Germany, our function in Nato operations has always been to provide medical support. So our speciality in medicine has come in very useful.”

– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2020)

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