Monday 29 June 2020 8:39 am

Lessons from the data: How can countries avoid a second Covid wave?

Agathe Demarais is global forecasting director at the Economist Intelligence Unit

The Economist Intelligence Unit recently launched an index to rank the quality of the policy response to coronavirus across 21 OECD countries. 

Countries are assessed against three “quality of response” criteria: number of above-average excess deaths, number of tests, and provision of non-Covid-19 healthcare. Three mitigating criteria adjust scores to take pre-existing risk factors into account: share of older population, obesity prevalence, and number of international arrivals.

The resulting index is only a snapshot of what things looked like as of mid-June, based on data that is by essence incomplete. OECD countries are at different stages of the pandemic; a more accurate assessment of the situation will only be available in months, if not years. 

Read more: What pubs, cinemas and hairdressers will look like under new lockdown rules

However, our index holds some preliminary lessons for policymakers on how to prepare for potential second waves of the pandemic. 

The first lesson is to go hard and go early.

Austria, Germany and New Zealand count among the countries that have been lauded for their response to the pandemic; the number of excess deaths that these countries recorded is low compared to other states despite significant risk factors, including an ageing and often overweight population. This begs the question of why these countries managed to perform significantly better than others. 

The common trend between the OECD countries that recorded the lowest number of excess deaths boils down to one single thing: they all reacted early and swiftly, and put solid testing programmes in place. As a result, many of them were also able to continue to provide non-Covid healthcare, which will have a further beneficial impact on their long-term health outcomes. 

This does not mean that swift lockdowns are the only way to go, however. In fact, not all of the countries that managed the pandemic well introduced stringent lockdowns at all. But what they did do was implement aggressive tracing programmes, including via the early launch of reliable mobile phone apps. This is something that other OECD countries might want to remember if the pandemic flares up again. 

The second big lesson is that countries may manage the pandemic well even if they have a high risk profile.

New Zealand is a case in point: the country has the highest risk score in our rankings, alongside France and Portugal. As a whole, the New Zealand population appears vulnerable to severe coronavirus infections. The country is also a significant tourist hub and records a high number of international arrivals (as a share of the population). 

Yet despite all odds, New Zealand kept the number of excess deaths at low levels by OECD standards. The quality of New Zealand’s policy response appears to have mattered more than pre-existing risk factors.

In other words, a high coronavirus death toll is by no means inevitable. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the UK holds lessons as to how not to deal with a pandemic. The country had an average risk profile compared to its OECD peers. It seemed well positioned to tackle the pandemic given its superb public healthcare system. 

Yet the UK recorded the second highest number of excess deaths per capita among OECD countries, just after Spain, which had a faster build-up in cases. An insufficiently fast and coordinated response, an initial lack of testing capacity, and a decision to suspend track and trace in early March may explain why the UK became an outlier. In focusing efforts on protecting hospitals, the UK also neglected care homes, which fuelled the death toll. 

The third and final lesson is to look beyond crude death data. The US is a case in point here. The country records the highest number of deaths worldwide, partly reflecting population size and, perhaps, the poor initial response of the US administration. However, the high number of deaths also reflects existing risk factors, such as a high prevalence of obesity and an ageing population. 

When assessed against these risk factors, America’s performance is not as poor as the crude data may suggest. In fact, it is better than that of most of the countries that shared a similar risk profile. Although it has risen in recent days, the number of excess deaths per million people in the US is in the average range of other OECD countries. 

Against this metric, the US performs slightly less well than Germany and Austria, but better than France and Italy. This does not mean that the US healthcare system is performing brilliantly; many Americans lack access to health coverage, which impeded testing at first. However, things are probably not as bad as they may look at first sight. 

Going hard and early and mounting a competent, co-ordinated policy response may be the recipe for success to tackle a second wave of the pandemic. There is no miracle cure against coronavirus, but ambitious and socially-accepted government measures may be the next best thing. 

Read more: UK coronavirus deaths rise by 149 as lockdown lift looms ahead

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.