Comparing how different countries have responded to the coronavirus outbreak is an extremely difficult task to do well, but an easy one to do badly. New Zealand has won praise for its government’s swift reaction, but one reason for the low number of cases is that it is a country of five million people, far away from other major global population centres, so it attracts fewer international visitors than countries like the UK.
Brazil has officially recorded more than 16,000 deaths from Covid-19 – compared to the latest UK figure of nearly 35,000 – so some might think that its government has been doing better than ours.
But, despite the UK’s shortcomings over the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the belated conversion to mass testing after advice from the World Health Organisation was initially ignored, this could not be further from the truth. The actions of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, a Donald Trump-style populist, have been widely condemned at home and abroad as he has refused to abide by even the most basic social distancing. Now, the mayor of Sao Paulo has warned that its health system is on the brink of collapse with fears that hospitals could run out of beds within two weeks. He accused those who have been ignoring the lockdown rules – perhaps inspired by Bolsonaro – of playing “Russian roulette” with people’s lives.
The grim prospect facing that city is the scenario the UK’s lockdown was designed to avoid. Had the NHS been overwhelmed, shortages of PPE would have been a life-and-death issue for more than hospitals and care homes, with many of us forced to look after sick and dying relatives at home as best we could. The rate of infection would have surged higher and higher, bringing the estimated worst-case scenario of 500,000 deaths closer to reality. The effect on the economy hardly bears thinking about.
As we begin to ease the lockdown’s restrictions, it is absolutely vital that we take the new regime seriously and that we respond in the same way we did when the controls were first imposed if they need to be tightened once again.
A second wave of infection may come whatever we do, but we need to maintain the excellent discipline and public-spiritedness that has been key in helping get us through this crisis. And that means listening to Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson and ignoring the advice of any British Bolsonaros.