The novel coronavirus has crept its way through almost every country across the globe since the start of 2020, resulting in more than 358.55 million cases and over 5.62 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.

Over time, countries have also rapidly rolled out COVID-19 vaccines – along with COVID passports – in a bid to fight the virus.

But which countries have dealt with this pandemic the best? Is there a reason why certain countries haven’t had such a high number of cases? And how well are governments reopening their economies? Let’s find out.

Woman wearing surgical mask going through crosswalk in midtown manhattan

A woman strolls down empty streets in New York during lockdown

Methodology

We’ve based our study on several different measures of how countries have handled COVID-19 the best and worst by looking at death rates per million people, cases per million people, vaccination rollouts, and how countries have re-opened their economies.

We’ve based our findings on a collection of data sourced from Our World In Data, as well as government reports.

These results are correct as of 26 February 2022.

Countries with the most COVID-19 deaths per million people

CountryNumber of deaths per million people
Peru6,132.81
Bulgaria4,765.93
Bosnia and Herzegovina4,331.60
Hungary4,257.56
Montenegro4,028.34

1. Peru

Deaths per million people: 6,132.81

The Peruvian government hasn’t exactly been transparent with its COVID-19 figures. In June 2021, Peru’s government revealed that the country's official COVID-19 death toll was over 180,000, instead of the reported 69,342.

Like many other South American countries, Peru has suffered massively from new variants of COVID-19, pushing its death rate up even higher. The new Lambda variant, for example, has the highest mortality rate out of the new strains, and was first found in Peru in December 2020. It has since spread to 29 nations around the world.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that around 82% of COVID-19 cases in Peru are associated with the Lambda variant.

2. Bulgaria

Deaths per million people: 4,765.93

Bulgaria has been struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus for a while now. In December 2020, the country had the highest death rate in the EU – at 25.4 per 100,000 inhabitants – and registered more than 20,000 new cases in the last week of November.

Its understaffed health system has consistently failed to support the country throughout the whole pandemic, and has only vaccinated 28% of the population. 

Fast forward to January 2022, and Bulgaria now has the lowest life expectancy. The country is also still battling COVID-19, with the omicron variant resulting in roughly 12,000 daily cases.

3. Bosnia and Herzegovina

Deaths per million people: 4,331.60

Initially, Bosnia and Herzegovina managed to keep COVID-19 under control. The government even imposed strict bans on anyone over 65 leaving their home for any reason – even for a short walk, to get groceries, or go to the pharmacy.

The second and third waves, however, increased death rates massively. Some commentators and experts pinned the blame on the government for reopening the border, whilst authorities blamed citizens, employers, and business owners for not following the recommended measures. 

In April 2021, over 1,000 people marched through Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, to demand the government’s resignation over its poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

4. Hungary

Deaths per million people: 4,257.56

At the beginning of the pandemic, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán claimed that COVID-19 infections would peak exactly on 3 May 2020 and, as a result, ordered the gradual easing of lockdown measures on that date. By 16 June, the government lifted virtually all coronavirus restrictions and officially ended a state of emergency. The country now has the second highest COVID-19 death rate in the world.

This dismissive attitude is something that the Hungarian government has continued throughout the pandemic, up to present day.

Despite cases rising in September 2020, the government did not introduce measures to protect people most at risk – there was no mask mandate and no mass testing. Even the UEFA Super Cup took place in Budapest with a capacity of 20,000 spectators.

5. Montenegro

Deaths per million people: 4,028.34

For about five weeks in May and June 2020, Montenegro was completely free of COVID-19, making the country a shining beacon in Europe.

But this relatively small, poor nation of 620,000 was unable to contain the pandemic when it returned, partly due to pressure on its economy.

A quarter of Montenegro’s GDP comes from tourism, which fell by 90% in 2020, leading finance minister Milojko Spajic to promise that the borders would “definitely remain open” in 2021. “We’ve learned our lesson,” said Spajic.

The spread of misinformation also hurt efforts to control the virus, with one in three people in Montenegro believing in conspiracy theories about COVID-19, as of June 2021.

Cases subsided during the middle of 2021, but rose sharply in the late summer, and in August, they reached an all-time high of 638 cases per day.

Countries with the fewest COVID-19 deaths per million people

CountryDeaths per million people
Burundi3.10
Vanuatu3.18
China3.21
Bhutan3.85
New Zealand10.14

1. Burundi

Deaths per million people: 3.10

Burundi had a rocky start at the beginning of the pandemic. Former President Pierre Nkurunziza, who died in June 2020 (with speculation that he’d contracted COVID-19), had dismissed the disease and claimed his country was protected by God.

The country’s new President, Evariste Ndayishimiye, later declared that COVID-19 was the country’s “biggest enemy,” and implemented stricter measures.

Burundi also had help from UNICEF when COVID-19 emerged. The organisation set up a huge communication campaign, promoting handwashing to stop the transmission of the virus, as well as making soap more affordable and accessible for Burundians.

2. Vanuatu

Deaths per million people: 3.18

This South Pacific Ocean nation of 80 islands and a little over 300,000 people has had four cases of COVID-19, and just one death.

The secret to its success was taking the threat extremely seriously before it became an issue.

Russel Tamata, speaking for the government’s COVID-19 advisory team, said in April 2020: “If it comes, it would be a disaster.

“At this point, we have to be strict with our borders – our fear is that if it enters Vanuatu, it would spread very quickly and we simply do not have the resources and facilities to manage it.

“The slightest mistake will impact us very badly.”

The resulting shutdown has hit the nation’s tourism-reliant economy hard, but it has saved countless lives.

3. China

Deaths per million people: 3.21

China has impressively managed to keep the death rates down, despite it being the suspected origin country for the virus. But what’s China’s secret to success?

Well, it certainly helped that most Chinese adults remember SARS-CoV from 2003, and the high mortality rate that came with it. The level of strict measures also prevented the virus from spreading so easily.

Wuhan was placed under a strict lockdown that lasted 76 days and public transport was suspended. Similar measures were also implemented in every city in the Hubei province soon afterwards. Dozens of cities imposed family outdoor restrictions, which typically meant that only one member of each household was permitted to leave the home every couple of days to collect necessary supplies.

As of October 2021, the UK – which has a population 20 times smaller than China has seen 30 times as many COVID-19 deaths. 

4. Bhutan

Deaths per million people: 3.85

Bhutan was not predicted to handle the coronavirus pandemic well. When the outbreak initially happened, the country only had 337 physicians for a population of around 760,000 – less than half the WHO’s recommended ratio of doctors to people – and only one of these physicians had advanced training in critical care.

It was the government’s impeccable communication that kept COVID-19 cases down, with officials issuing clear, concise daily updates and creating COVID-19 helplines for citizens. The health ministry also rolled out an initiative calledOur Gyenkhu (Our Responsibility), which spread awareness of COVID-19 through influencers, actors, visual artists, bloggers, and sports personalities.

On top of this, the country barred tourists, closed schools and public institutions, began flexible working hours, introduced a successful track and trace program, and continuously called for face masks and social distancing.

5. New Zealand

Deaths per million people: 10.14

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.

Almost two years on since New Zealand’s first lockdown, and the country is still swift to respond to new cases. It’s one of the only countries that have avoided a wave of omicron breakouts, and has fully vaccinated 93% of New Zealanders aged 12 and over.

Countries with the highest and lowest number of COVID-19 cases

Countries around the world have struggled to keep the notoriously contagious COVID-19 case numbers down. For some, that has meant a number of strict lockdowns, whilst others have continued with stringent social distancing measures.

Below, we’ve listed the countries with the most COVID-19 cases per million people:

CountryCases per million people
Andorra448,599.94
Seychelles359,983.82
San Marino346,545.13
Montenegro342,355.96
Slovenia300,593.68

Andorra implemented a strict lockdown from 13 March 2020, but it was the second wave that led to its spike in cases – the same goes for the small country of Seychelles. Thankfully, both nations are pushing forward with their vaccination rollouts, which will have prevented lots of deaths.

Montenegro’s second wave also explains its high numbers. It has been suggested, however, that 65% of those infected during this period were under the age of 50 – making them less likely to end up with serious side effects.

San Marino's small population has a big influence on its ‘deaths per million' figure, despite the government’s strict measures and quick response.

Slovenia’s downfall came quite late. During the first wave of COVID-19, Slovenia was actually one of the least affected countries, but the situation became drastically worse during the second wave in autumn. Ever since, the country has struggled to deal with the different variants.

There are also some countries that have been able to stop the spread of COVID-19 at their borders. Below we’ve listed the countries with the lowest number of cases per million people:

CountryCases per million people
Micronesia8.60
Tonga9.37
Kiribati16.48
Vanuatu22.26
China73.22

Although it might not seem possible, there are even a handful of countries that are COVID-free.

Countries with the best COVID-19 vaccination rollout

As it stands, 60.7% of the world's population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 54% is fully vaccinated. Although this is great news, unfortunately, only 9.8% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.

But which countries are leading the way in the COVID-19 vaccination race? Check out the table below:

CountryPercentage of people partly vaccinated against COVID-19Percentage of people fully vaccinated against COVID-19Total percentage of people vaccinated against COVID-19Total amount of doses given
UAE6.34%92.66%99%23.34 million
Chile3.58%87.81%91.39%46.27 million
Spain5.50%81.83%87.33%88.98 million
Italy6.89%75.75%82.64%125.25 million
Uruguay5.10%77.18%82.28%7.33 million
Poor area of Mumbai, India

India's hasty reopening of the economy led the country into a second wave of COVID-19

How have countries handled reopening post-COVID?

New Zealand

Whilst gradually opening up the economy over the past year, New Zealand has still been swift to respond to new cases. In November, for example, health authorities partially shut down the central city of Auckland, after just one student became infected with COVID-19. Aukland has since been rated as the most liveable city in the world, thanks to its response.

In response to calls for borders to be opened to the world, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern painted a picture of “a world where the virus is escalating, not slowing and not even peaking in some countries yet, where cases exceed 10 million globally and deaths half a million, where countries are extending and returning to lockdown. All of the while, we get to enjoy weekend sport, go to restaurants and bars, our workplaces are open, and we can gather in whatever numbers we like.”

Iceland

Iceland has also managed to simultaneously boost its economy and have one of the lowest death rates in the world.

As a country that relies on tourism, opening the borders to tourists has helped Iceland’s economy get back on track. This has been done safely with the help of the country’s effective track and trace system, rigorous testing, and social distancing.

The UK

The UK seems to have taken an ‘all or nothing’ approach to reopening the economy. After a summer of low cases, the government released the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme to support the hospitality industry in August 2020. This backfired massively, driving infection rates up by between 8-17%.

This rise in cases led to a strict one-month lockdown in November, which was lifted in December to encourage the retail industry during Christmas. The days leading up to Christmas were also filled with confusion, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson waited until the last minute to increase restrictions.

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.

India

Although India's first wave of COVID-19 was deadly, its second wave did far more damage.

At the end of February 2021, India's election campaign begun in full swing with no safety protocols or social distancing. On top of this, in mid-March, the cricket board allowed more than 130,000 fans, mostly unmasked, to watch two international cricket games between India and England at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Gujarat.

Plus, in April 2021, three million people gathered on the shores of the Ganges to take a ritual dip in the holy river – again, with no COVID protocols put in place.

As a result, the ferocious second wave led to full hospitals, shortages of oxygen and other medical supplies, and overflowing crematoriums.

What’s the verdict?

It’s clear to see that time is everything when it comes to the pandemic. Countries that locked down early were able to manage the virus more efficiently – and countries that ignored the virus are now suffering the consequences. Of course, there are some countries that implemented fairly strict measures early on, but just didn’t have the money or infrastructure to deal with it.

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 all countries are more ready and prepared for the next one.