Not-So-United Nations: How Global Governments Responded to COVID-19

Not-So-United Nations: How Global Governments Responded to COVID-19
Jun 18, 2020 By Alistair Baker-Brian ,

From lockdowns and social distancing, to testing and contact tracing, governments around the world have taken vastly different approaches in the battle against COVID-19. In this article, I bring you an introduction to various government responses. I will look at China, where the outbreak was first discovered, nearby Asian countries and regions, Europe, the UK, the United States and Brazil. The case studies — which will focus in on policies regarding lockdowns, border closures, public information and testing —  have been chosen because their governments represent a broad range of responses. All figures for infections, deaths and testing have been taken from the worldometer website and are accurate as of June 18.

Global response COVID

Mainland China

The lockdown of Wuhan on January 23 came in a surprise announcement overnight following the December discovery of COVID-19 in a now-infamous wildlife market in Hubei’s capital city of 11 million. After this point, leaving Wuhan was not permitted for the vast majority of residents, and leaving home was only permitted for grocery shopping, medical care or anything else deemed “essential”. At one stage, many households could only send one person out to buy groceries once every three days. Other people had necessities provided by their residential compounds. Public transport was shutdown entirely, schools and all non-essential businesses were closed, and other cities in Hubei province quickly followed suit.

Similar policies were implemented elsewhere in mainland China in the following weeks, albeit to varying degrees of strictness. Despite small spikes in some cities, including most recently in Beijing, lockdowns have now largely eased across China as official numbers drop to minimal levels. The government has, however, become wary of imported COVID-19 cases, resulting in 14-day quarantines for new arrivals and a travel ban for almost all foreigners.

In terms of public information, mainland China saw a swathe of public advertisements encouraging people to wear face masks, wash their hands regularly, avoid large gatherings and stay at home as much as possible. As is China’s way, however, medical professionals and ordinary citizens alike were silenced in many cases when it came to sharing information about COVID-19 and the lockdown. While citizens were by and large happy to comply with the lockdown, the Chinese government’s response to COVID-19 was described as “aggressive” by the West.

The official numbers released by China seem to show that they are winning the battle against the virus, with 83,322 confirmed cases (58 per 1m population) and 4,634 deaths (3 per 1m population). Some have raised questions about the accuracy of such numbers, especially since China has defined positive infections in eight different ways since the start of the outbreak. At present, it’s simply too early to tell if the figures are accurate. We may, indeed, never know.

On testing, contact tracing and isolation, mainland China appears to be implementing effective policies, although official testing numbers are not currently available. In April, The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal published a study on isolation and contact tracing in the southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen, looking at 391 COVID-19 patients and their 1,286 close contacts. The study concluded: Patients identified through symptom-based surveillance were identified and isolated, on average, 4.6 days after symptom onset… Contact tracing reduced this time to 2.7 days…”

In addition, the ending of the lockdown in Wuhan and a subsequent tiny spike in cases prompted mass testing of residents in a bid to ensure the virus did not spread once again to other parts of China. On June 3, Chinese state media reported that mass testing of over 9 million Wuhan residents had been completed.

All in all, the government has largely declared victory over COVID-19, and has even managed to quell public anger at the death of doctor Li Wenliang, who was initially accused of “spreading rumours” when whistleblowing about the severity of the a new virus. They have also managed to portray themselves domestically as taking the diplomatic high ground by shipping medical supplies to hard-hit countries — although, admittedly, not all supplies have been up to international standards.

Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand

With the 2003 SARS outbreak still vivid in their memories, governments in countries and regions close to mainland China were, on the whole, swift and effective in their response to COVID-19. Current numbers of confirmed cases stand as follows: Hong Kong (1,121); Taiwan (445); South Korea (12,257); Thailand (3,153). Deaths stand at: Hong Kong (4); Taiwan (7); South Korea (280); Thailand (58).

Lockdowns and border closures to foreign travellers were implemented relatively quickly in most cases. In Hong Kong, the closing of the border with mainland China on January 30 was in part a result of widespread public anger. The territory also closed schools, many public facilities, and enforced social distancing and mask wearing.

Taiwan acted early to screen passengers from Wuhan. Their border closed to foreign travellers in March and has since remained closed. A complete lockdown was never deemed necessary by the Taiwanese government due in large to their policy on testing, contact tracing and isolation (mentioned later on).

From March 17, South Korea tightened border checks for foreign travellers but stopped short of a complete travel ban. Since April 1, anyone arriving from abroad has been required to complete a 14-day quarantine. The country closed many public places and non-essential businesses, measures that were reinforced towards the end of May following a second spike in Seoul’s nightclub district.

The exception to the rule of fast and decisive action was Thailand. Even though Thailand was initially one of the worst affected areas outside of mainland China, as a country that’s GDP relies heavily on tourism, especially from China, it was slow and reluctant to close its borders. It was not until April 6 that the border was closed to all foreign travellers except for those with a work permit and diplomats and their families. The country was also relatively slow to impose lockdown measures, with a curfew between 10pm and 4am imposed from April 3. The lockdown was largely lifted as of May 17.

On public information, each government’s response to COVID-19 involved coordinated public health campaigns. The Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updates in Korean and English twice per day, while Taiwan’s public health advertisements warned against the dangers of mask hoarding. In Thailand, concerns were raised by some international observers who said the government restricted online messaging about the virus under the pretext of quelling “rumour-mongering”.

When it comes to testing numbers, however, these Asian nations’ figures are relatively low, currently equating to: Hong Kong (275,293); Taiwan (74,699); South Korea (1,145,712); Thailand (468,175). Once again, Thailand appeared to be slightly behind the trend with a contact tracing app only developed in May. By this time, Hong Kong was already testing everyone with COVID-19 symptoms and had implemented a 14-day quarantine for new arrivals. Close contacts of confirmed cases were also forced to stay at a designated isolation facility for the same amount of time.

South Korea also implemented early mass testing and created designated quarantine sites, even for those with mild symptoms. Meanwhile, Taiwan was quick to develop a contact tracing app and implement a two-week quarantine period for anyone affected.

With so few deaths, the responses of China’s immediate neighbours appear to have been effective. Such effectiveness is perhaps even more surprising given the proximity and interconnectedness of the aforementioned countries and regions to mainland China, where the virus was first discovered.

Italy, Germany and Sweden

Continental Europe became the world’s second epicentre of COVID-19 before cases skyrocketed in the United States and Brazil. A range of very different government responses were implemented to tackle it.

Parts of northern Italy were initially hardest hit, prompting the government to impose Europe’s first lockdown. By March 9, the lockdown was implemented across the whole country. Like in Wuhan, residents could only leave the house for grocery shopping, medical care or anything else deemed “essential”. Fines and imprisonment were threatened for those caught flouting the rules, although as of May, shops, bars and restaurants have started to reopen. Current confirmed cases and deaths in Italy stand at 237,828 and 451,383, respectively.

Other European countries were soon to follow suit. Germany also imposed a strict lockdown but started to re-open non-essential shops and allow students back to school as of the end of May. Current confirmed cases and deaths in Germany stand at 190,179 and 8,927, respectively.

Sweden’s response was an anomaly, with the government imposing no official lockdown whatsoever. Official advice has been that only those feeling unwell should stay at home. Current official figures stand at 54,562 for confirmed cases and 5,041 for deaths, which can hardly be considered a success, given that per capita Sweden has one of the highest death rates in the world.

Each of the aforementioned European countries ran coordinated public information campaigns. The Italian government launched what it called a digital solidarity campaign, setting up a website to encourage companies to offer free online services. E-learning, data and publications were made available for free to help keep people busy, educated and informed while living under lockdown.

Angela Merkel’s message struck a somewhat internationally diplomatic tone, with the German chancellor urging President Trump to reconsider cutting ties with the World Health Organization (WHO). With the gradual easing of the lockdown, many regions in Germany are also requiring everyone on public transport and in most shops, restaurants and bars to wear face masks.

The Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven has been urging personal responsibility alongside its no lockdown policy. This message was further reinforced by Swedish epidemiologist and government advisor Johan Giesecke, who declared that there is no scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of lockdowns.

When it came to testing, contact tracing and isolation, Italy rolled out a mass programme after dealing with the crisis in the hardest hit region of Lombardy. Testing numbers currently stand at 4,773,408.

Germany’s swift action in implementing testing also received widespread praise, with Prospect Magazine describing the drive in the following way: “The doctors began a ‘corona-taxi' service – medics in local authority cars checking up on asymptomatic people who had shown up as infected at home, keeping them away from hospital. They built a separate facility to house COVID-19 positive care home residents, shielding other residents from them, while also keeping them out of ICU until necessary.” In short, Germany was on the ball when it came to testing. Its testing figure currently stands at 5,029,696.

Once again, Sweden appeared to buck the trend somewhat, ignoring WHO advice to contact trace where possible and generally testing fewer people than most in the region. The current testing figure for Sweden stands at a lowly 325,000.

Overall, the response by continental European governments to COVID-19 was mixed. The lockdown in faraway totalitarian China eventually became a reality in Italy and many other parts of the continent. Ultimately, the mixed responses have translated into mixed levels of success in beating the virus.

The United Kingdom

Despite clear warnings from the initially dire situation in Italy, the British government was reluctant to lockdown. Even as the virus worsened at the beginning of March, staying at home was still only a recommendation. The British press published stories of people ignoring said recommendation, crowding parks, beaches, national parks and elsewhere. The pressure was on the government to pass legislation declaring a lockdown.

And on March 23, they did just that. People were only allowed to leave their homes for grocery shopping, medical care and one form of exercise per day. Non-essential workers were told to work from home if possible, and non-essential businesses and schools were all closed. Fast-forward to June and the lockdown is gradually being eased, with people now allowed out of the house to meet with friends and family, and schools slowly re-opening.

The government initiated a coordinated public information campaign reminding the public of the importance of hand-washing and staying home as much as possible. Initially there was confusion regarding the government’s position on “herd immunity”, with suggestions that the delayed response was an indication of official policy to let a significant proportion of the population get infected. After weeks of dithering, Prime Minister Boris Johnson eventually changed course.

Confusion arose again when the government changed its message from “stay at home” to “stay alert,” with many unsure what the latter meant. There was also uncertainty over the accuracy of death rates, which initially only included deaths in hospitals. Later the figures were updated to include those in care homes, where COVID-19 had spread widely. Current figures for the UK stand at 299,251 confirmed cases and 42,153 deaths.

On testing, tracing and isolating, the UK government was again criticised for its slow response. Initially, testing was largely unavailable, and it was not until May 28 that tests were officially made available “to anyone with symptoms". After a false start and embarrassing technical issues, a contact tracing app is still in the process of being rolled out. Current testing figures for the UK stand at 7,121,976.

Despite having months to prepare, COVID-19 seemed to take the UK government by surprise. The government’s message of social distancing has also not been helped by the fact that the prime minister’s top advisor Dominic Cummings broke the very rules he helped to implement.

The United States

Quick to impose a travel ban on entries from China in the early stages of the outbreak, the Trump administration was keen to show it had COVID-19 under control. This became more difficult in later weeks as the numbers of confirmed cases and deaths rose higher and higher. Current numbers stand at 2,234,471 confirmed cases and 119,941 deaths, both the highest of any country or region in the world.

Although decisions regarding lockdowns were left to state governors, at one point, over 90% of the US population was under mandatory lockdown orders. Many states are now starting to allow non-essential businesses to open, even as COVID cases continue to climb.

When it comes to public information from the government, the Trump administration’s daily COVID-19 press conference was the main medium for communicating with the masses. However, this has not always been a cornucopia of sound advice. At one point, the president suggested that injecting bleach or disinfectant into the body could be a way to beat the virus. After a media backlash, he insisted he was being “sarcastic”. At one point, Trump also revealed he was taking hydroxychloroquine, a drug which has now been declared unsafe for treating COVID-19.

When it comes to testing, contact tracing and isolation, the US has currently carried out 26,243,811 tests. Many states appear to be getting up to speed with drive-through testing centers and the hiring of contact tracers who track down the close contacts of confirmed cases.

But the death toll alone tells a sorry story of the US government’s response to COVID-19. State administrations should be on their guard against a second wave as lockdowns are gradually eased.


Warnings that South America will become the next COVID-19 epicentre after the United States (at least in terms of confirmed cases) should not be taken lightly if you consider Brazil’s situation.

As in the US, lockdowns have largely been the responsibility of state governors, with some merely encouraging social distancing. Ironically, the situation has been deemed serious enough for the Trump administration to warrant a ban on Brazilian travellers.

When it comes to public information on the virus, the government’s message has been characterised by president Jair Bolsonaro’s comments about how COVID-19 is “just a little flu”. This misguided message has been coupled with news clips showing the president mask-free, shaking the hands of supporters protesting lockdown.

Official figures for Brazil stand at 960,309 confirmed cases and 46,665 deaths, both the second highest in the world after the US, although some sources suggest that the country “likely has 12 times more coronavirus cases than the official count”.

When it comes to testing, the focus has largely been on serious cases rather than all suspected cases, with the official number for testing standing at 1,709,468. As Reuters reports: “Hospitalized patients aren’t being tested. Some medical professionals aren’t being tested. People are dying in their homes without being tested.”

Brazil is perhaps one of the most serious causes for concern at the time of writing. The government response to COVID-19 has not been helped by the president’s seemingly blasé attitude and the recent successive firing and resignation of two health ministers.


In almost every part of the world, COVID-19 seemed to take governments somewhat by surprise. In mainland China, the government appears to have got to a position of stability despite recent lockdowns in the northern cities of Jilin, Shulan and, most recently, Beijing, all of which have experienced "second waves”. Mainland China’s Asian neighbours appear to have responded relatively well, perhaps because of their vivid memories of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which did not hit the West as hard.

Where government responses to COVID-19 go from here is still somewhat unclear, with many administrations, particularly in the West, easing lockdowns. At this rate, it’s highly likely the world will experience a second wave en masse before a vaccine is developed.  

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Keywords: global response covid-19


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早, this article needs corrections; especially up there in Italy's paragraph " Current confirmed cases and deaths in Italy stand at 237,828 and 451,383, respectively." Wait, what? 237,828 and 451,383 respectively?!

Jun 23, 2020 09:53 Report Abuse



no surprises here then

Jun 23, 2020 08:47 Report Abuse



What (in response to 'Guest 17124634') is "the best country in the world"?? That is such a subjective view and, anyway, 'best' is a very vague term: 'best' in economics / happiness / growth rate / gun control / suicide rate/ air quality? The list goes on....! Many countries / leaders proclaim that their's is the "best country" - rhetoric to be accepted with great circumspection!

Jun 22, 2020 10:54 Report Abuse



Not united at all as the best country in the world is NOT leading

Jun 21, 2020 15:38 Report Abuse



You miss the point here (in response to mikizad), please focus on Not Leading, instead of The Best Country. (Plus, I know you are right, it IS a subjective view.)

Jun 23, 2020 14:21 Report Abuse



alll reallyti the covid 19

Jun 21, 2020 14:24 Report Abuse



Thanks Alistair, very informative read. United Nations was primarily established to bring peace after the 2 devastating wars, then it expanded with little success to promote cooperation and it is perhaps the only tool that facilitates cooperations between countries with no implementation power apart from Chapter 7 resolutions.

Jun 19, 2020 17:27 Report Abuse