UK and US mishandle Covid-19 despite supposed preparedness

31 March 2020 6 min. read
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The global Covid-19 pandemic has already seen more than half-a-million cases, and claimed around 25,000 lives since the start of 2020. Beyond the limitations of the world’s previous pandemic prevention measures, the outbreak has also highlighted the deficiencies of the health systems in some of the world’s wealthiest nations – including the US and UK – despite research suggesting they should have been able to cope easily.

According to a report from the Global Health Security Index, an assessment of over 80 factors across six main categories – prevention, detection and reporting, rapid response, health system, compliance, risk environment – has shown the UK and US were among the best prepared countries to deal with the coronavirus and other pandemics. The hugely respected GHS Index is a project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security (JHU) and was developed with The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

The most recent findings from the researchers suggested that the US was by far the best prepared nation for the virus, something which will have come as a relief to the current White House Administration that has come under consistent fire for its handling of Covid-19 preparations. Meanwhile, the UK was said to be next best, buoyed by the nation’s apparent capacity to detect and rapidly respond to pandemic situations.

UK's preparedness for the coronavirus and pandemics

The GHS Index meanwhile suggested that in Europe, Italy was the worst prepared, while Iran and South Korea would be hit hardest. China was found to be third-worst prepared of any nation in the report – something which will not have been helped by the nation being the epicentre of the initial outbreak.

Mixed accuracy

Interestingly, the GHS’ accuracy when it comes to these predictions seems to have fluctuated wildly. While the situation has developed so rapidly that predictions made even a week ago may have become out-dated, it is notable how badly the reality differs from the theory on display here, particularly regarding the best and worst prepared nations. Italy and Iran have indeed been hit extremely hard by the pandemic – with more than 7,000 casualties in Italy alone – while North Korea is blatantly obscuring its data on the matter.

South Korea’s Government meanwhile fared relatively well meanwhile, as anticipated, due to the aggressive measures rolled out to address its outbreak of Covid-19. Most notably, the country used incredibly widespread testing to examine more than 357,896 citizens, confirming 9,237 cases – a number of which might not even have shown symptoms, but would still have been contagious. On the other hand, while the virus undeniably caught China’s authorities off-guard, and they were initially keen to cover it up, the country’s massive response since has saw cases level off weeks ago, making its response actually quite successful.

Conversely, the US response has continued to flounder, in spite of the nation’s supposed readiness. While the US has a much smaller population than China, the number of Covid-19 cases there has already surpassed those in the nation of the original outbreak. While President Donald Trump has often sought to weaponise the virus as a political issue, his administration has also sought to do everything it can to avert a lock-down, for fear it would derail the nation’s economy.

The countries best prepared for the coronavirus and pandemics

Beyond the Government’s lacklustre response, experts in the US have also warned the nation’s creaky system of private insurance means the cost of testing means many were initially put off of following up on symptoms, while there is a lack of training and coordination and communication within the health system as a whole. A March survey from the country’s largest nurses’ union even found that 47% of members were unsure if their hospital had a plan in place to isolate patients with coronavirus infection.

UK response

In the UK, meanwhile, the National Health Service was already approaching a breaking-point following a decade of austerity which had left it underfunded and understaffed. Ventilators remain in short supply for those hit by chronic Covid-19 symptoms, and intensive care beds are already overflowing. Some health workers are buying their own face masks or hoods, while testing is reserved for patients and not nurses.

If cases of the deadly coronavirus surge continues in anything like the numbers some experts have predicted, doctors in the UK now say they would have to consider denying lifesaving care to the frailest patients to prioritise those with better chances of surviving. Speaking to the New York Times earlier in the month, Dr George Priestley said the shortage in ventilator support meant for many patients “it’s going to end in death,” as reports from NBC confirmed that while Germany has increased its coronavirus tests to half-a-million a week, the UK is managing 6,000-7,000 a day; 20 times less – somewhat conflicting with the GHS’ report.

The fight against Covid-19 has not been aided by the UK Government’s opaque statements on the subject. Having routinely gone against World Health Organisation advice, Boris Johnson even went viral when his assertion that Britain could "take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures." Such is the state of the crisis that researchers modelling how the disease will spread in the UK have since warned that if the Government does not change course, a quarter-of-a-million UK residents could die.

What all this points to is not so much that the GHS Index got it wrong – though it does seem to have greatly overestimated the resourcing and capacity of both healthcare systems – but that according to the study’s findings, the UK and US should have been able to fight Covid-19 in a much more solid manner than they have done. In light of this, if indeed the worst-case scenarios do become a reality, the leaders of both nations could find themselves facing massive recriminations in the post-coronavirus world.