Jan 31, 2021 - World

Rich countries' pandemic preparedness failures

Reproduced from Branko Milanovic using GHS Index and Worldometer data; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from Branko Milanovic using GHS Index and Worldometer data; Chart: Axios Visuals

Some of the richest countries in the world — the ones that had been considered the best prepared to handle a pandemic — turned out to be the ones that suffered the highest death rates.

Why it matters: The SARS-CoV-2 virus has proven that preparedness needs to be global, and coordinated.

By the numbers: Just before the pandemic, Johns Hopkins University, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and the Economist Intelligence Unit released a World Health Preparedness Report ranking every country in the world on its pandemic preparedness.

  • The highest-ranked country was the U.S. — but now, only eight of the 153 countries in the study have a worse death rate than the U.S.
  • The U.K. came in second for preparedness; its death rate is even worse than America's.
  • Thailand and Sweden were ranked equally on preparedness, but Thailand has seen only 1 death per million people, while Sweden has seen 1,078.

The big picture: The virus spread in large part because of two big failures. First, the Chinese government failed to contain it and tried to cover it up. And second, the U.S. failed to take on the global leadership role that most pandemic specialists expected to see.

  • Once the virus was spreading internationally, it traveled first along the world's densest travel and trade corridors, and proved most lethal to the elderly, who are overrepresented among rich countries.

Where it stands: The Biden White House has promised to rejoin the World Health Organization; help lead the Global Health Security Agenda; and create protocols for coordinating and deploying a global response to any future pandemic.

  • That's all part of a broader attempt to fight the current pandemic and put the world on a stronger footing when the next one emerges.

What's next: As Princeton economist Angus Deaton points out, future deaths may well fall more heavily on poorer countries, especially if rich countries vaccinate themselves first.

  • For the time being, however, even after accounting for possible measurement and reporting errors, the virus has disproportionately hit the richest and best-prepared nations.

The bottom line: The preparedness report made it very clear that most countries were ill positioned to combat a global pandemic. What no one predicted was that the best-prepared would end up seeing the highest death rates.

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