Most countries’ COVID-19 responses have alternated between success stories and cautionary tales. National response strategies implemented in the second year of the pandemic have left ample room to improve preparedness for future crises.
As the coronavirus evolved more contagious variants in 2021, governments struggled to return to social and economic normalcy; most countries experienced several surges, and alternated between success stories and cautionary tales. Two factors critical for effective management of the pandemic have been governments’ readiness to adjust response strategies as circumstances change, and their ability to maintain public trust and compliance.
By the latter part of 2021, research showed that fully-vaccinated people are less likely to transmit the virus, experience severe symptoms, or die. Yet, slow vaccine rollouts in some places and vaccine hesitancy remain risks. As many grew weary of lockdowns and rules like mask requirements during 2021, several countries experienced riots when governments sought to tighten restrictions in the face of new outbreaks.
Effective national responses generally involved multi-pronged approaches to transmission control, reliable logistics, and increasingly granular real-time data. Chile and Finland, for example, were better able to manage surges than others with less-well-rounded approaches. Rapid, wholesale easing of constraints on social and economic activity often resulted in steep rises in case numbers, though health-system impacts and mortality were often mitigated in places with relatively high vaccination rates.
High-income countries have generally had privileged access to vaccines, and by the end of 2021, all but three Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development member states had double-vaccinated at least half of their populations.
However, low-income countries, especially in Africa, have low vaccination rates and must rely on “vaccine diplomacy” initiatives and efforts like the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program (which has suffered from a low level of contributions from high-income countries). Still, well-oiled disease surveillance systems and young populations in these countries may have contributed to relatively low mortality rates.
In general, official communication has had to steer a narrow course between individual freedoms and collective resilience. National resilience strategies for future pandemics will likely have to anticipate at least some level of defiance and distrust of well-meaning restrictions. Ultimately, a balanced path that involves transparency, far-reaching regulation, and healthy levels of data sharing will be critical.