FOR A YEAR NOW, Bloomberg’s COVID Resilience Ranking has tracked the best and worst places to be during the pandemic, combining data ranging from outbreak control to death tolls, vaccination campaigns to progress toward restarting travel.
Twelve months of the Ranking have made one thing clear: past performance is no guarantee of future success — or failure. Countries have been stymied again and again by the vagaries of the biggest health crisis in a generation, but some have also found ways to turn devastating situations around, whether through science, social cohesion or simply learning from the past.
Since it debuted last November, the Ranking’s best and worst performers each month have fluctuated, with the onset of vaccines, the emergence of the delta variant and the more recent reopening push key moments in the pandemic journey.
Initially, the top performers among the 53 economies ranked were those which deployed tough containment strategies, including quarantines and border curbs. Then, places that were able to roll out shots the fastest came to the fore, with those that have been able to combine high vaccination levels with a normalization of social and economic activity now scoring highest.
As more potential turning points loom — lockdowns are returning in some places and the advent of COVID-19 pills could neutralize the virus long term — we scored a year’s worth of COVID resilience, zeroing in on the most con-sistent performers, who’s done best on reverting to normal life and the ultimate indicator: Where deaths have been most effectively avoided.
The pandemic’s volatile arc meant that no top performer sustained their success all year. New Zealand and Singapore, once No. 1 for walling out the virus and maintaining a level of pre-pandemic normalcy for most of 2020, saw their fortunes plunge as Delta infiltrated their COVID Zero fortresses, triggering renewed lockdowns and restrictions. The US — fleetingly No. 1 in June — and Israel, the fastest at rolling out shots and lifting curbs in the early months of 2021, were caught out when the virus flared again over the summer, particularly among the unvaccinated.
The Ranking’s lower rungs fluctuated too: Countries like Mexico and Brazil were ranked lowest through early 2021 as the virus slammed their populations, but Latin America has avoided the worst of delta thanks to vaccination and a high level of natural immunity. Southeast Asian countries took over as the worst places to be in the second half of the year as their inoculation rollouts lagged, with resurgent outbreaks leaving their export-dependent econ-omies reeling.
Amid the flux, a handful of places proved the most consistent. Most of them never reached No. 1 of the 53 economies ranked, but they never fell below 26th place, either. These seven countries — Norway, Denmark, Finland, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, South Korea and Switzerland — are the closest the pandemic has to season MVPs: whether rolling out vaccination, fighting Delta or reopening the economy, they always scored above average.
Strong healthcare safety nets and societal cohesion are common denominators among the seven, qualities that advantaged them at every stage of the pandemic. A faith in government and people’s willingness to follow rules helped with containing the virus, while these countries’ relative wealth meant they had the buying power to snap up the first supplies of vaccines.
At the other end, nine countries — Argentina, Iran, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Poland, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa — have never risen above the Ranking’s mid-point the past year. These places have been the most devastated by the pandemic, infections-wise, and many still struggle with limited access to vaccines.
In June, as vaccines proliferated in developed economies and governments started to lift restrictions, the Ranking added two new data indicators to the original 10 to reflect the progress toward reopening and normalizing econo-mies: Vaccinated Travel Routes and Flight Capacity.
The rollout of shots has allowed many countries to resume aspects of pre-pandemic life, with fatality rates largely decoupling from infection curves and Europe, North America and some parts of the Asia-Pacific now looking to live with the virus.
Places that accept COVID is endemic, like influenza, are less likely to lock down or see people avoid public activities. Over the past year, Community Mobility — a stalwart indicator of the Ranking which tracks levels of movement to offices and retail spaces compared to a pre-pandemic baseline — has remained relatively steady in Greece, the US, the UK and Germany, with all four avoiding weekly activity drops of more than 10% since the end of last year.
Similarly, their flight capacity has steadily recovered and the stringency of restrictions, particularly in the US and the UK, is at a low level.
EXITING THE PANDEMIC
While all of these places continue to see waves of infection and some, like the US, are still seeing significant fatalities, the data shows that in these countries people are no longer willing to endure disruption to their everyday lives and have largely lost their fear of the virus. For these economies, the pandemic is receding into the rear view — though winter will pose a test.
At the other end of the spectrum, mobility levels in places like Pakistan, South Korea, Japan, Chile and Israel have all dropped by 10% or more over the past four months, as virus resurgences triggered restrictions on people’s movements. New Zealand has seen six such activity drops in the past 12 months, reflecting a stop-start cycle of curbs that’s exacting a growing toll.
While ongoing lockdowns have been associated with the “COVID Zero” approach that aims to eliminate the virus’s spread, Mainland China and Hong Kong — the only places in the world still adhering to the strategy — have not seen domestic activity levels drop by more than 10% since early 2021. This doesn’t capture international travel, which has been strictly curbed in both places, and in the case of China reflects its vast scale: lockdowns in some part of the country to wipe out delta flareups only occasionally rise to the point where activity nationally is impacted.
COVID-19’s lasting legacy is the more than 5 million lives that have been lost over the course of the pandemic, a toll that’s widely viewed as likely under-counted. The blow has been unevenly distributed across the world, and has been largely tied to the effectiveness of containment strategies in the first year of the pandemic before vaccines became available.
Limited fatalities have been the standout success story of the COVID Zero approach, although the flip side has been a far slower reopening, particularly when it comes to travel. On a per capita basis, China has the lowest COVID mortality of the 53 places ranked, with just three deaths per million people. New Zealand — which still has a closed border, though it is moving toward opening — is second, with just eight fatalities per million. Other places that successfully eliminated and kept out COVID in the first year such as Taiwan, South Korea and Australia have seen less than 100 deaths for every 1 million people.
At the other end, Peru has the worst death toll, with 6,093 dying from COVID per million people. The US — which was particularly unsuccessful at containment — and European nations have seen fatalities of around 2,000 peo-ple for every million.
The northern-hemisphere winter may again reshuffle the ranking leader board as countries confront the first cold season with both vaccines and the more transmissible Delta. Already, European nations like Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark are seeing fresh waves and some have imposed new lockdowns to slow the virus’s spread. We’ll see how that’s impacted the region’s Ranking performance in the November edition — out next week.
Right now, many developed countries are racing to get booster shots in arms and to inoculate children, the last big group to be vaccinated. Will these actions be enough to sustain the world’s slow exit from the pandemic? Or do we see a reversion to restrictions as new waves — and, the doomsday scenario: more virulent variants — force a reversal? Keep tracking Bloomberg’s COVID Resilience Ranking to find out. — Bloomberg