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Some Countries Have Brought New Cases Down To Nearly Zero. How Did They Do It?


As the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise, a vaccine may appear to be the only solution to the pandemic. But even without a vaccine, some countries have managed to control the virus, even bringing local transmission to a halt. NPR's Jason Beaubien looks at how these countries tamed COVID-19 and what they have in common.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In the era of COVID, controlling the virus seems to come down to leadership. Take Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand.


NEW ZEALAND JACINDA ARDERN: I'm speaking directly to all New Zealanders today to give you as much certainty and clarity as we can as we fight COVID-19.

BEAUBIEN: It was March. Cases of the coronavirus were exploding in Italy and Spain. As soon as New Zealand confirmed its first cases, Prime Minister Ardern took action, closing her country's borders and taking to the airwaves to explain how the country was going to confront this challenge.


ARDERN: Here's how we will know what to do and win. Already, in New Zealand, we have warning systems.

BEAUBIEN: Ardern was calm and, Siouxsie Wiles says, reassuring.

SIOUXSIE WILES: Our prime minister really made the decision that she did not want what was happening in Italy to happen in New Zealand.

BEAUBIEN: Wiles is an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Auckland. She says Ardern declared that New Zealand would act fast and act hard against the virus. But Wiles says it was the prime minister's tone that was quite interesting.

WILES: Unlike many other countries, she never put us on a war footing.

BEAUBIEN: Her speeches weren't about attacking an invisible enemy. Instead, Ardern called on New Zealanders to unite against the virus and protect their fellow citizens.

WILES: So she's talked over and over about us being a team of 5 million and that we all do our part to break these trains of transmission and to eliminate the virus. And I think that has been - one of the really crucial things was everybody knowing how they had to behave and that they were behaving for the good of everybody.

BEAUBIEN: It was a shared view of the problem and a shared responsibility for the solution. And then Ardern rolled out a plan. She described a new four-level COVID alert system. With each level, there were stronger lockdown measures. But she assured New Zealanders that even at the highest level, grocery stores and other essential services would remain open.


ARDERN: Shop normally. If we do that, our supermarkets will have time to restock their shelves.

BEAUBIEN: Eventually, Ardern ratcheted the alert level all the way up to 4. The outbreak peaked in early April. And since then, they've brought transmission of the virus down to practically zero. New Zealanders give Prime Minister Ardern much of the credit for their success.

In Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea have also all stopped domestic transmission of the virus or brought it down to very low levels. And here, again, leadership plays an important role. Gi-Wook Shin is the head of the Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. He says these four Asian countries all did something similar to New Zealand.

GI-WOOK SHIN: I think there are some, you know, common threads, which is, you know, very swift and effective state intervention.

BEAUBIEN: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea all have experience with the central government directing economic development. So they know how to harness manufacturing and research to attack particular problems. Shin says this helped South Korea quickly develop its own tests for the virus.

SHIN: I think in those countries in Asia, absolutely, they believe that the state, the central government is responsible for, you know, intervening and then solving this problem.

BEAUBIEN: Another trait of the successful responses against COVID-19 is that they've all been apolitical. They haven't been framed as coming from one political party or another but rather as efforts for the good of everyone.



BEAUBIEN: On March 18, German Chancellor Angela Merkel did something that she'd never done before while in office. She took to the airwaves and gave a televised national address.


MERKEL: (Speaking German).

BEAUBIEN: She told Germans to take this virus seriously. And she said it was every German's responsibility to tackle it.

JANA PUGLIERIN: Merkel's speech to the nation on national TV prime time was super unusual for her.

BEAUBIEN: Jana Puglierin is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

PUGLIERIN: She has never done that in any of the previous crises, not in the migration crisis when she was under enormous pressure, not during the eurozone crisis. So this was really a first for her.

BEAUBIEN: As a public speaker, Merkel has a reputation for being cold.

PUGLIERIN: But in this speech, she really managed to connect with the people. She brought them on board. She convinced them that this was necessary.

BEAUBIEN: Merkel drew on her background as a scientist - she has a degree in quantum chemistry - to explain the pandemic in a way people could easily understand.

PUGLIERIN: She was very human, very approachable, very transparent and very clear in her message. And she has this tremendous gift of explaining kind of everything that is related to that virus and a very clear and understandable way for ordinary citizens.

BEAUBIEN: Germany is still dealing with coronavirus transmission, but it's brought its daily case numbers down, significantly. The number of deaths in Germany is far lower than in many other European countries. And Angela Merkel is getting a lot of credit for that success. As the world searches for vaccines and treatments, national leadership may be just as important in bringing the coronavirus under control.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.