The Countries Who've Handled Coronavirus the Best – and Worst
The novel coronavirus has crept its way across the globe for over a year now, resulting in more than 129 million cases and almost 3 million deaths.
Some countries have dealt with these chaotic months better than others. Lockdowns were imposed at different times, various strategies were considered, and restrictions varied in severity from government to government – and indeed, they’re still varied, so you should check the rules before you move.
But which countries have dealt with this pandemic the best? And is there a reason why certain countries haven’t had such a high number of cases?
A woman strolls down empty streets in New York during lockdown
We’ve based our country rankings on a collection of data, based primarily on each country’s cumulative death toll (sourced from Our World In Data). Once we collated the death toll data, we then looked into what measures each government took to prevent the spread of the virus. The main correlation between strategy and death toll seemed to be timing – in other words, the sooner lockdown was imposed, the better.
In recent months, the easing of lockdown rules, relaxing of border control regulations, and introduction of measures to kickstart the economy have also contributed to second waves in some countries.
One of the issues with comparing countries is that many of them report deaths in different ways. Belgium, for instance, includes deaths where coronavirus was suspected of being present, but was never confirmed with a test. It’s also been suspected that some countries have not been exactly transparent with their records.
Our data has been based on the current cases and deaths, as of 1 April 2021. Moving forward, we will be updating our figures monthly.
Top five countries that handled coronavirus the best
(1,030 cases, 10 deaths)
Before the coronavirus even registered on the radars of other governments, Taiwan was testing and quarantining travellers from Wuhan, China.
The island’s networks with China gave it a clear view of the original epicentre of the now-global pandemic, enabling it to act early – deploying a containment strategy that has proven to be one of the most successful in the world.
The island used technology to trace suspected cases, and is still doing so today – if a citizen tests positive, they are provided with a quarantine hotel and cab. Taiwan also maintained a stockpile of face masks, medical officers, and lab capacity to handle any outbreaks prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
The outbreak of SARS in 2003 severely impacted Taiwan, leaving it with the third most infections in the world. The country has since strengthened its preparations for the next epidemic, including setting up an infectious disease prevention network and holding annual drills in hospitals.
In October 2020, this small country reached a record 200 days without any domestically transmitted cases of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the situation turned on the 30th November when 24 cases were reported in one day.
Most of these cases were from people traveling from Indonisia, so – in line with Taiwan’s rigid strategy – the government conducted coronavirus testing on all Indonesian migrant workers undergoing quarantine in quarantine centres. Adopting this strategy meant that Taiwan was able to contain the outbreak – another example of the country staying one step ahead of COVID-19.
To prevent any risk of spreading the virus, the Taiwanese coronavirus task force kicked off the New Year by stating it will not consider allowing the entry of Indonesian migrant workers in the near future “unless there is a strong demand.”
2. New Zealand
(2,201 cases, 26 deaths)
New Zealand wasted no time in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in its country.
On 28 January 2020, the Ministry of Health set up the National Health Coordination Centre (NHCC) to respond to the outbreak. An Infectious and Notifiable Diseases Order was issued to take effect from 30 January 2020, which required health practitioners to report any suspected cases under the Health Act 1956. This was the first barrier of protection for New Zealand.
Travel restrictions to and from other countries were imposed as early as February 2020, and on 23 March 2020, New Zealand committed to an elimination strategy. The country had reported 102 cases and 0 deaths when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand was going to rapidly escalate levels of social distancing and travel restrictions, reaching the level of a full national lockdown on 26 March 2020.
Rather than just ‘flattening the curve’, New Zealand took a more aggressive ‘disease elimination’ approach. Very impressive for a country that has never experienced a major pandemic, and had been barely affected by SARS.
11 months on from New Zealand’s first lockdown, and the country is still swift to respond to new cases. In November, health authorities partially shut down the central city of Auckland, asking workers in the city to stay home after just one student became infected with COVID-19. And, just a few weeks ago, travel was suspended in New Zealand after it received its first case in two months.
A view of empty roads in Auckland during lockdown
(6,205 cases, 29 deaths)
Iceland’s success is partly down to its tiny population of around 364,000 – but early vigilance and action were also key to keeping down the case numbers.
Health officials rushed in to contain the spread earlier than most countries, whilst the government quickly built a team of contact tracers. This team would interview those with a positive diagnosis, and track down people they’d been in contact with. As a result, the country has not faced one of the large-scale lockdowns seen across the world.
Another huge reason why Iceland has been successful is because people actually stayed indoors. If a person was suspected to have the virus, they were told to stay inside while the government covered the individual’s full salary.
In a briefing held in Reykjavík on 1 February 2021, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason said he would submit his recommendations for relaxing restrictions to the Health Ministry, as the country has not reported a domestic case out of quarantine since 20 January 2021.
(60,381 cases, 30 deaths)
Timely preparation, aggressive testing, tracing of carriers, and a bit of luck helped limit the impact of COVID-19 in Singapore. The city-state’s comparatively small population of 5.7 million people and experience of SARS in 2003 gave it the upper hand against the encroaching virus.
The government tightened border controls almost immediately after the disease first erupted in China – whilst also providing a clear public communication strategy.
Despite having high case numbers, many have questioned why Singapore’s mortality rate is so low. Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious disease specialist, said the population’s average age had “diluted” the country’s death rate – since most of Singapore’s new cases are younger people.
In fact, more than 90% of Singapore’s recent cases are low-wage foreign workers living in dormitories.
More recently, the government in Singapore announced that pupils over the age of seven must use the city state’s contact-tracing app or wearable device from December 2020 onwards. It’s hopeful that this will combat the transmission of COVID-19 to older family members.
After reporting 55 new cases at the end of January 2021 – all of which were imported to Singapore from another country – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) stated that Singapore will suspend travel arrangements with Malaysia, Germany, and South Korea for three months.
(2,603 cases, 35 deaths)
When the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Vietnam on 23 January 2020, its emergency plan was immediately put into action – months before other countries had even considered taking any precautions. The country brought in travel restrictions, closely monitored and eventually closed the border with China, and increased health checks at borders.
Schools were closed for the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of January 2020, and remained closed until mid-May. Plus, a vast and labour-intensive contact tracing operation went underway immediately.
“When you’re dealing with these kinds of unknown novel, potentially dangerous pathogens, it’s better to overreact,” says Dr Todd Pollack of Harvard’s Partnership for Health Advancement in Vietnam in Hanoi.
Experts say that, unlike other countries now seeing infections on a huge scale, Vietnam saw a small window to act early and made it count.
Vietnam’s strategy worked extremely well – at least until July, when an outbreak of the virus in Danang led to over 450 cases being reported in just one weekend. Fortunately, the government was ready to respond, and decided to evacuate around 80,000 visitors in the city – where they were flown home promptly. The historic port city then sealed itself off from visitors and retreated into full lockdown.
Unfortunately, Vietnam started the New Year with another outbreak, this time triggered by the UK variant of the virus. However, by following the same strict measures, officials are confident they can keep it under control.
A woman wearing a facemask stood outside in Da Lat city centre, Vietnam
Top five countries that handled coronavirus the worst
(30.46 million cases, 552,072 deaths)
President Donald Trump’s nonchalance in the face of COVID-19 and refusal to act fast has led the country down a very slippery slope.
The US government turned a blind eye to much of the World Health Organisation’s advice – including implementing a track and trace system.
And the ignorance doesn’t stop there. President Trump has incessantly promoted hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the virus, despite research showing it is likely to be ineffective. His initial refusal to wear a face mask has undermined the seriousness of the pandemic, and who can forget the time he suggested that injecting disinfectant could cure the illness?
The Trump administration has often blamed the scale of testing for the high figures, as well as the size of the country. Check out the chart below to compare death rates per capita.
Data from Statista
But if you put New York – the worst-hit state in the US – under the microscope, the mortality rate is close to 150 people in every 100,000. This shows that there is a lot of variation across the country. To compare, the UK has a mortality rate of 68 people in every 100,000.
Back in February 2020, in a White House briefing, Trump said: “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Unfortunately, wishful thinking hasn’t fared well for the US.
But the US has the potential to slow the infection rate now that newly-elected President Biden is in office. On his first day, Biden signed executive orders mandating masks on federal property, and when travelling on planes, buses, and trains.
Plus, after months of confusion and misinformation from the Trump administration, there is now official federal guidance on COVID-19 health measures. However, the responsibility for this guidance does fall to state leaders, some of whom are showing scepticism.
In fact, a handful of red-state governors have said they would not follow the advice to introduce tighter public health measures, like universal masking, even while COVID-19 cases are soaring in their states.
(12.72 million cases, 321,515 deaths)
Despite claiming one of the highest death tolls in the world, there’s still not been a national lockdown in Brazil. States and cities adopted their own measures, but these were met by protests, with compliance diminishing as time went on.
President Jair Bolsonaro even joined anti-lockdown protests in the capital, and has repeatedly played down the risks of this “little flu”. Medical advice was swiftly ignored by the government – one health minister resigned, and another was even sacked. Amid this chaos, mass testing took its time to get going, while contact tracing never even started.
Compared to wealthier citizens, poorer Brazilians are less likely to have health insurance and are less likely to use health services, despite needing them more. This has led to a huge portion of Brazil’s poorer communities contracting the virus.
Plus, these numbers are suspected to be much higher, due to severe delays in testing, family members being rumoured to object to the word “coronavirus” on death certificates, and reports of pressures on local administrators to minimise numbers.
For many, the recent development of COVID-19 vaccines has come as a sign of hope – but, in line with the rest of his handling of the pandemic, President Bolsonaro has hugely undermined the significance it could have on the Brazilian population. He even went as far as to say that the CoronaVac vaccine is “untrustworthy” because of its “origin”. In response, China delayed the shipment of active vaccine ingredients to Brazil, which resulted in production being halted.
After a nightmarish year with minimal support from leaders, thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in their cars in January 2021 to demand Bolsonaro’s impeachment.
(2.24 million cases, 203,210 deaths)
Mexico is yet another country where the government responded too slowly to the coronavirus. President Andres Manuel López Obrador played a key role in the spread of the virus – indeed, the Mexican leader was adamant not to close borders or exercise caution at airports.
Before cases began to spike in Mexico, Obrador claimed that “Mexico’s spirituality would protect the country against the virus,” and made a public display of pulling out two religious amulets that he said would be his shield. In mid-March 2020, the carefree President said the country was “going to keep living life as usual,” urging people to “continue taking your family out to eat because that strengthens the economy.”
And life certainly did continue as normal, for far too long. On March 15 2020, some 40,000 concert goers crowded into the Foro Sor venue for the popular Vive Latino music festival. Tourists from Europe and the United States were able to enter the country without any restrictions until late March. Plus, restaurants, airports, subways, and grocery stores remained open in Mexico City until lockdown was introduced on 30th March.
When rules were put in place, they weren’t always clear, either. President Obrador placed restrictions on border travel between the US and Mexico to limit tourism, but still allowed people to work and go to school across the border. There was also very little guidance from the Lopez Obrador administration for the migrant camps near the US border, where conditions are crowded and adequate sanitation is a challenge.
As cases continue to swell, many Mexicans are now having to deal with the financial as well as emotional toll of COVID-19. The virus is now one of the five most expensive illnesses to treat in Mexico, alongside HIV and cancer, with an average treatment cost of $20,000 – although the price-tag can go beyond $1 million in cases where patients go into intensive care or are put on ventilators.
(12.22 million cases, 162,927 deaths)
Unlike some of the other countries in this list, India was quick on its feet in the early days of COVID-19 – implementing surveillance as early as January 17 2020. After cases started to emerge in the country, the government enforced a strict lockdown, starting from 24th March and lasting until 31st May.
However, given only a few hours’ notice, the people of India were not equipped to cope with this news. The sudden lockdown impacted millions of low-income migrant workers, who had been working in cities in search of a better life. They often had no savings, and little financial help from the government. Consequently, these workers and their families faced hunger and illness – with many having to walk hundreds of miles to reach their villages.
Eventually, the government was able to provide rations for migrants, but this was implemented more than 45 days after lockdown.
It was clear to see that GP services and hospitals were not equipped to deal with this outbreak – particularly once the virus made its way to the more rural parts of India – resulting in many people being turned away.
Testing, so crucial in helping stop the spread of the virus, has also been scarce in India. According to the FIND database, in June 2020, India was testing around 4,100 people per million – compared with a global average of over 29,000 tests per million.
Unfortunately, the polarisation between India and the other countries on this list is huge – whilst the likes of the well-funded US and the UK waste billions on faulty track and trace systems, India faced the pandemic head-on, but was let down by a lack of funding and unequipped hospitals.
Despite having the 4th highest death count to date, India’s daily death tolls have been rapidly declining with no explanation. Jishnu Das, a health economist at Georgetown University, stated: “It’s not that India is testing less, or that things are going underreported. It’s been rising, rising – and now suddenly, it’s vanished! I mean, hospital ICU utilization has gone down. Every indicator says the numbers are down.”
(4.36 million cases, 126,955 deaths)
The UK’s high death toll is the result of a dangerously late lockdown, and an administration that was slow to grasp the seriousness of the pandemic.
In the early days of the pandemic, most countries had begun their lockdown process – the UK Prime Minister, however, reportedly missed five Cobra meetings. Almost five weeks after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the UK, Boris Johnson announced: “It’s very important that people consider that they should, as far as possible, go about business as usual.”
It wasn’t until 285 people had passed away that Johnson decided to lock down the country. And, not only was the lockdown late, but it was considerably lax – travel restrictions in and out of the country weren’t even imposed until June!
And who could forget about the trainwreck of clumsy mistakes from the UK government? Ministers allowed 25,060 patients to be discharged from NHS hospitals to care homes without being tested for COVID-19, chose to abandon contact tracing at the height of the pandemic in March, and failed to provide adequate protective equipment for front-line workers.
Fast forward to September, and the UK’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme backfired massively, with some experts believing that it triggered the country’s second wave. Boris Johnson was also widely criticised for telling parents that it was safe to send children to school on 4 January 2021, despite announcing the closure of these schools only hours later.
Although the UK now has a strong vaccine programme, the main concerns for Brits are the new variants floating about, which are said to have come from South Africa and Brazil.
Looks like Boris’s tactic to “take it on the chin” and “let the virus move through the public” didn’t work so well after all.
St. Paul’s Cathedral looking awfully lonely on the quiet streets of London
What’s the verdict?
It’s painfully ironic that the two nations that were hailed as being the most prepared for a pandemic – the USA and the UK – have landed themselves among the highest death tolls. On the flip side, countries that kept their COVID-19 death rates very low (such as Vietnam and Iceland) had previously ranked poorly on the preparedness scorecard.
It’s clear to see that time is everything. Countries that locked down early were able to manage the virus more efficiently – and countries that ignored the virus are now suffering the consequences.
Although the virus seems to be plateauing in some countries, researchers have suggested that this may be the first pandemic of many. So, let’s hope the countries at the bottom of our pile are swift to learn from their mistakes.