A pandemic atlas: Nations ran the gamut in their response

The nations of the world ran the gamut in their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic — sometimes veering from strict to lax measures in the course of just a few months, and vice versa. A look at the state of the pandemic around the globe:

AUSTRALIA

Australia has achieved notable success in battling the virus, though there have been anxious moments. The first Australian case was confirmed in January and Prime Minister Scott Morrison banned residents from international travel in March. Authorities imposed travel restrictions within the island continent and closed schools and businesses. Australia also relied on testing and contact tracing. The strategy appeared to be working well until an outbreak in Melbourne, which was traced to lax controls at hotels where residents returning from abroad were being held in quarantine. Officials were slow to react but, as the new outbreak rapidly spread, Victoria State imposed a strict lockdown in July that lasted almost four months. The lockdown ultimately proved successful, and most aspects of Australian life have returned to normal. In all, the nation of 26 million has reported about 28,000 cases and over 900 deaths.

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CANADA

After COVID-19 cases surged in the spring, Canada flattened the epidemic curve with a lockdown. But as in other countries, COVID fatigue set in, restrictions were relaxed and a second wave was unleashed. Toronto, the largest city, is back on lockdown, but schools are open. A major black mark has been the death of senior citizens in long-term care and retirement residences; more than 8,460 of Canada’s 13,430 deaths have occurred there. Overall, there have been more than 460,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada since the pandemic began, a stark contrast to the U.S. which is recording almost half that number each day. Mask wearing never became a political issue in Canada, and is widespread. Canada was the third country to start administering the Pfizer vaccine.

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FRANCE

France reported Europe’s first case of COVID-19, detected on Jan. 24 in an individual who had recently traveled from China. The country also was the site of the first virus-linked death outside Asia, on Jan 28. It later emerged that the virus had arrived even earlier than previously thought — a French hospital discovered it had treated a contaminated man on Dec. 27. Since then, France has figured among the continent’s worst case counts and death tolls, claiming more than 58,000 lives in France. The crisis has exposed weaknesses in the country’s widely admired public health system, battered already by budget cuts. From March to May, France experienced one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns, shuttering the country’s famed cafes. France went into a second lockdown in the run-up to Christmas.

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MEXICO

Mexico confirmed its first COVID-19 case in late February and never instituted heavy-handed restrictions aimed at stopping its spread. There were no curfews or mask requirements, just repeated pleas to act responsibly. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador downplayed the severity early on and was almost never seen publicly wearing a mask. He maintained that he did not want to resort to “authoritarian” measures. He was also well aware of the devastating impact on the already weakened Mexican economy and conscious that staying at home would mean not eating for many families. More than 114,000 Mexicans have been confirmed to have died from COVID-19. The real number is estimated to be far higher due to extremely limited testing.

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NEW ZEALAND

When the virus began its spread in March, circulating at events like conferences and weddings, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern moved quickly to shut the nation’s borders and impose a strict lockdown. Her motto: “Go hard and go early.” Ardern intended to eliminate the virus entirely — a bolder vision than mere containment. The lockdown turned out to be remarkably successful, and New Zealand went more than 100 days without any community spread. But then several small outbreaks occurred in Auckland. So far, New Zealand has managed to stamp out each new outbreak through targeted lockdowns and contact tracing. That has meant New Zealanders have been able to enjoy freedoms that remain the envy of many other countries. They have returned to work, school and sports stadiums without any significant restrictions. The country of 5 million has reported about 2,000 cases and just 25 deaths.

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RUSSIA

In late March, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial economic shutdown, which was then extended until mid-May. Most virus-related restrictions were lifted over the summer, in what critics saw as an attempt to boost turnout at the July vote on constitutional amendments extending Putin’s rule. Coronavirus cases started rapidly growing again in the fall, hitting new records in daily new infections and deaths — doubling those set in the spring — but authorities have shunned another nationwide lockdown or a shutdown of the economy. By mid-December, Russia had the world’s fourth-largest tally of confirmed cases with over 2.6 million, and most regions introduced mild restrictions, such as ordering the elderly to self-isolate or limiting the hours of restaurants and bars. The country’s state coronavirus task force has reported more than 47,000 deaths in the pandemic, but Russia’s state statistics agency, Rosstat, says more than 78,000 people with COVID-19 had died by November, including cases in which the virus was not the main cause of death and others in which the coronavirus hadn’t been confirmed.

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SOUTH and NORTH KOREA

North Korea maintains there hasn’t been a single virus case on its soil, a claim widely disputed by outside experts. Despite its zero-infection claim, North Korea significantly restricted border traffic, flew out foreign diplomats and isolated residents with symptoms. Analysts say a pandemic outbreak in North Korea could be devastating because of its dilapidated health care infrastructure.

South Korea has recorded more than 45,000 cases. In February and March, when it saw a dramatic surge in viral cases tied to a religious sect, South Korea had the world’s largest number of infections outside mainland China. It managed to contain that outbreak by April, thanks to its aggressive contact tracing, testing and treatment plans and the widespread public use of masks. But the country in past weeks has seen a viral resurgence in the densely populated capital area as social distancing decreased, prompting concerns about possible hospital capacity shortages.

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SWEDEN

After the first confirmed virus reached Sweden in January, the Scandinavian country of 10 million opted for a different — and much- debated — approach to handling the pandemic: It relied mainly on recommending that residents act responsibly, with no mask mandate and no lockdown. Sweden did ban gatherings larger than 50 people, closed high schools and universities, and urged those over 70 or otherwise at greater risk to self-isolate. That softer approach meant that schools for younger children, restaurants and most businesses remained open, creating the impression that Swedes were living their lives as usual. The result: one of the highest per capita COVID-19 death rates in the world. When the second wave arrived in the fall, a rapid increase in new cases and the strains on medical services pushed the government to take stricter measures, including a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. in bars and restaurants. Sweden then set the strictest virus restrictions to date by banning public gatherings of more than eight people.

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UNITED KINGDOM

Britain was hit by the pandemic slightly later than mainland European countries like Italy and Spain but, despite the warning, it has fared worse than most of its neighbors, with more than 64,000 officially confirmed deaths. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was hospitalized with the virus in April, has been accused of waiting too long to impose a national lockdown. The U.K. also lacked protective equipment and large-scale testing capacity for COVID-19, factors that contributed to infected patients being released from hospitals into nursing homes, where the virus quickly spread and claimed thousands of lives. A three-month lockdown that began in March succeeded in curbing the outbreak, albeit at huge cost to the economy, and testing has been vastly expanded. The virus began to run out of control again after Britons returned to workplaces, socializing, schools and universities. A four-week lockdown in November provided only temporary respite, and Britons still face strict restrictions — though hopes rose when the U.K. became the first country to authorize a rigorously tested coronavirus vaccine.

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