(March 18, 2020 / JNS) The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed systemic weaknesses in political institutions and public-health authorities around the world. Outside of China, the largest case clusters of COVID-19 are in Italy and Iran. Because of the interconnected nature of globalized economies, transmission vectors from both of those countries have now seeded new outbreak centers across vast tracts of Europe and the Middle East.
However, despite similar initial conditions, there’s been a significant divergence in the intensity and scale of the subsequent outbreaks in the Middle East compared to in Europe. Broadly speaking, Western Europe and Scandinavia are combating a larger, more severe epidemic than the Iran-centric outbreak currently unfolding in the Middle East. Even Finland, a state known for its robust universal health-care coverage and well-funded hospital system, is staggering under the weight of multiple COVID-19 clusters. For Finland to have any hope of curbing COVID-19 escalation, the government must mirror the highly aggressive, yet highly successful policies seen in parts of the Middle East.
Models for containment
Although conditions are set to worsen in Iran, the aggressive quarantine and containment responses from neighboring Middle Eastern governments have seemingly curtailed the threat of an uncontrollable region-wide outbreak.
Make no mistake, not all public-health responses in the Middle East have been a resounding success. However, at the moment, case transmission data suggests that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel should both be commended for their outwardly successful efforts to check the threat of COVID-19.
The strong sense of political urgency and the unprecedented public-health responses in the Middle East likely derive from the region’s latent insecurity and historic battles with instability. In contrast to Europe, the average political actor in the Middle East is probably intimately familiar with the utility of an immediate response to political crises and/or public health emergencies.
For instance, in February, as governments around the world stubbornly downplayed the threat of COVID-19, the UAE was already implementing a series of pilot programs for distance schooling, remote learning collaboration and virtual doctors. After observing the high rates of infection within the Iranian political establishment, the UAE swiftly mandated that public officials replace in-person meetings with video conferencing, insulating the country’s bureaucracy from a virus-induced breakdown in governance. The UAE was also the first country to recognize the statistically significant threat of airborne transmission of COVID-19. To reduce the exposure risk for health workers, the UAE arranged for infected or high-risk individuals to be treated or quarantined in negative-air-pressure hospital rooms.
Another major set of proactive responses in the UAE stemmed from the government’s immediate recognition of the threat potential for Dubai, an international-transit hub that sees more than 12 million visitors per year, to become an utterly unmanageable regional transmission vector for COVID-19. To prevent this very plausible catastrophe, the UAE’s public health authorities have launched a comprehensive identification and sanitization campaign in Dubai, testing all passengers from high-risk flights and installing a massive number of antibacterial soap dispensers in high-traffic waiting areas and hotels.
Although the situation remains dynamic, these preventative actions appear to have been extremely effective, with the UAE currently recording (at the time of writing) just 98 confirmed COVID-19 cases.
In Israel, a similarly aggressive set of responses has helped cap the scale of the outbreak to around 300 cases. Compared to the UAE, this may seem like a worryingly large number, however, considering Israel’s high-density urbanized population, the infection rate is actually considerably lower than most experts predicted. A likely driver for Israel’s lower than expected infection rate is the government’s early decision to institute mandatory quarantine for all arrivals, regardless of origin. To minimize the impact of secondary outbreaks and reduce the chance of community transmission, the Israeli government has since mandated the closure of non-essential businesses and closed its borders to non-citizens.
While strict, these policies are believed to be a major reason for the ongoing success of Israel’s COVID-19 response.
Political inertia undermines Scandinavia’s response
On the surface, Finland, a country which boasts a strong economy and internationally lauded healthcare system, seems exceptionally well equipped to identify and contain the spread of COVID-19. Tragically, Finland’s capacity to control the outbreak early has been crushed by the general indifference and political indecision of the Finnish government.
Despite a spiraling number of COVID-19 cases (nearly 300 at the time of writing) and signs of community transmission, the Finnish government remains astonishingly unconcerned by the prospect of a local epidemic. In an interview with the Financial Times, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin exhibited a nonchalant attitude to the pandemic, pronouncing that “the situation [in Finland] is better than in some European countries. … We are prepared for different scenarios for coronavirus. I’m not that worried that Finland wouldn’t be able to handle the situation with the virus.”
Where the Finnish government has responded, the action has been diluted by political compromise and bureaucratic officialism. For example, in a high-profile announcement, the Finnish government, working in conjunction with public health officials, released a list of recommendations for people returning from high-risk regions. Instead of introducing a legal requirement for quarantine and testing, the Finnish government simply “recommended” that potentially contagious individuals consult with their employers and doctors. This lethargic, recommendation-based public-health response completely ignores the World Health Organization’s repeated pleas for countries to act aggressively to control the spread of COVID-19.
To initiate more dramatic action, Prime Minister Marin’s government needs to invoke a series of preparedness acts. By not doing so, the Finnish government is hamstringing its containment efforts and making it legislatively impossible to implement proven infection minimization strategies, such as strict travel restrictions and large-scale business shutdowns. By hedging their bets on reactive and compromising policies, the Finnish government has not only put its own people at risk, it’s also helped to spread COVID-19 deeper into Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
Acting early, quickly and aggressively is crucial during these times. The results speak for themselves.
Mikael Virtanen is a Helsinki-based entrepreneur with a focus on chemical manufacturing, commodities trading and crisis management. He leverages his broad commercial and business experience to write about global economic and political affairs.
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