COVID-19 Respects Geography, Not Politics

I had a lot of time on my hands in 2020. I’m guessing you probably did too. With the pandemic raging outside and me locked down inside, I decided to download the data to see what was happening in the global COVID-19 leagues. Who was winning and who was losing? Who had the best ideas? How was Europe doing? Was Ireland beating Denmark? has data for 190 regions, among them dependencies, micro nations, and border-line failed states. Many of these countries are less developed, less globalised, have weaker public health infrastructure and, in general, bear little relationship to Ireland. I decided to restrict the analysis to the developed countries. Using the UN High Development Index, I removed any nation with a score of less than 0.85. I then added Taiwan and removed Hong Kong, because one is a nation, and the other is not.

The image below is a table of the 41 developed countries ranked by COVID-19 deaths per million of population, as of the 30th of June 2020.

I chose that date because, by mid-2020, most developed countries had been through the first wave and come out the other side, with their outbreaks under control – the exceptions being the USA, Sweden, and possibly Israel. As such, it offers a fair point of comparison between the developed nations and effectively means that this table ranks nations by their performance in the first wave. It also marked a neat 6 months since the start of the crisis.

If you want to know who did well, look at the top. If you want to know who did badly, look at the bottom. If you want to know what policies work, look at the policy gap between the countries at the top and the countries at the bottom i.e. what did the winners do that the losers didn’t (and vice versa)?

Have you noticed anything in the table? Have another try: look at the top, and then the bottom. Do you see any patterns?

At the top: Taiwan, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Japan, Malta… what do these nations have in common? Have a think to yourself. Ready? They are all island nations. Of the 10 nations that best protected themselves from global contagion, 6 were islands.

Looking back at the top 10 again, I’m thinking about South Korea. The South Koreans’ only land border is with North Korea – a line only ever crossed by a few brave and lucky souls. If the only way COVID-19 could get into the country is by air or water, then South Korea is effectively an island, isn’t it? As far as this analysis is concerned it is. Taking into account the fact that there are two more islands in 11th and 14th, we have 9 islands in the top 14.

Meanwhile there are only two islands in the bottom half of the table. Ireland is in 31st – comfortably below the Danes – with our blushes only saved by the UK’s calamitous effort in 37th.

If 11 of the 41 nations are islands and 9 of them are in the top third of the table, I think it’s fair to say that there is something about an island that makes it a particularly safe refuge during a global contagion. You’d have to look at the two islands at the bottom and wonder what happened with their policies. Why did they do so badly, but all the other islands do so well?

What else can we say about the geographic distribution of contagion competence?

In the top 10 we have Slovakia, Latvia, and Greece (which is about 20% islands). In the bottom 10 we have the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Italy, Spain, and Belgium. These countries, as you probably guessed, are all EU nations. With 3 in the top 10 and 6 in the bottom 10, it suggests that the EU didn’t have a great first wave. However, there’s a more we can say about that story.

Andorra and San Marino are sandwiched between, and inside, other EU nations. It would be difficult for these micro nations to successfully pursue pandemic risk management policies that were significantly different from the EU nations surrounding them. Considering those countries are France, Spain, and Italy, it’s hardly surprising that they fared so poorly. That means 8 of the bottom 10 that are EU or EU policy-driven nations. Had the UK not decided to leave the EU, the number would be 9. (Whoever said Brexit was a bad thing??)

Well, what about the 3 EU nations at the top? Surely there’s some good news for Brussels up there?

Not really.

In Slovakia, Latvia, and Greece, we have three peripheral EU member states. They are not part of the ‘Core’ of the EU. They are not the leaders of the European project. Nor are they staunch followers of the Core’s policies, like Ireland. Their successes reflect national decisions, not effective coordination or sound policy from anyone in Brussels.

So what about the Core then? How did they actually do?

Of the EU’s 6 founding members, all are in the bottom half of the table, and most are in the bottom 10. Germany was the best performer in 26th, with Luxembourg two places behind. That’s pretty bad. Worse still, the EU’s 4 largest nations (Germany, France, Italy and Spain) had lost over 100,000 lives to COVID-19 by the end of June 2020. That’s almost as much as the USA, and with a smaller population.

Let that sink in.

None of the biggest, most important nations in the EU – the nations who drive policy for 440 million people and to whom Ireland defers for direction – were able to protect their own people from a predictable outbreak of a contagious disease. On a deaths per million basis, they fared even worse than the USA – a country that was led by an individual who initially denied that there the virus existed, suggested we might be able to eliminate it with bleach, and who at no stage appeared to be even trying to protect his people from the outbreak.

Whatever way you look at it, this was an astonishingly bad crisis for the EU.

Why did the islands do so well, but the Core EU nations didn't? Was this unflattering distribution purely a result of geography? Could we explain away the remaining disparities with a more complicated mathematical model that accounts for levels of economic development, or global connectedness?

The Core nations tend to be large, and land bordered, whereas it’s much easier for an island to cut itself off from the world. That probably played a part.

The other thing about the Core nations, is that they feel as strongly about the free movement of people, as the Americans do about guns. The Core nations believe that people should be free to move across all boundaries and borders, wherever they want for as long as they want.

Could it be that the dogmatic belief that the free movement of people supersedes every other policy, circumstance, or factor - including the health of those people - might not be the ideal public health approach in the presence of a deadly, contagious virus? I can't help but feel it may have contributed to the alarming number of deaths from COVID-19 experienced on the continent.