What impact have geography, political systems, population size, and economic development had on COVID-19 outcomes around the world?
Based on data available to 9 January 2021
Coronavirus continues to spread worldwide with more than 90 million confirmed cases across 190 countries and two million deaths as of mid-January 2021. For nearly a year, governments and societies have been turned inwards to fight an invisible enemy, exposing competing structures, vulnerabilities, and political priorities. The pandemic has also given rise to an ‘infodemic’ of narratives and counter-narratives about what kinds of states are inherently better suited to combatting the virus.
This Interactive explores how almost 100 countries with publicly available and comparable data on the virus have managed the pandemic in the 36 weeks following their hundredth confirmed case of COVID-19, using data available to 9 January 2021. Countries have been sorted into broad categories — by regions, political systems, population size, and economic development — to determine whether significant variations exist between different types of states in the handling of the pandemic.
Some countries have managed the pandemic better than others – but most countries outcompeted each other only by degrees of underperformance. The severity of the pandemic in many countries has also changed significantly over time, with infections surging again in many places that had apparent success in suppressing initial outbreaks.
No single type of country emerged the unanimous winner in the period examined. Variations between individual countries were far more substantial than those between broad categories of countries. Nor did a single theory convincingly explain the differences observed in national outcomes, despite some health measures proving far more effective than others.
However, certain structural factors appear to be more closely associated with positive outcomes. For example, smaller countries (with populations of fewer than 10 million people) proved more agile than the majority of their larger counterparts in handling the health emergency for most of 2020.
On the other hand, levels of economic development or differences in political systems between countries had less of an impact on outcomes than often assumed or publicised. There may be some truth in the argument put forward by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama that the dividing line in effective crisis response has not been regime type, “but whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state”. In general, countries with smaller populations, cohesive societies, and capable institutions have a comparative advantage in dealing with a global crisis such as a pandemic.
Systemic factors alone — a society’s regional provenance, political system, economic development, or size — cannot account fully for the differences observed in global crisis responses. The results point to some of the strengths and vulnerabilities stemming from the way different countries are set up to deal with a public policy challenge of this scale. But policy choices and political circumstances of the day appear to be just as important in shaping national responses to the pandemic.
To gauge the relative performance of countries at different points in the pandemic, this Interactive tracked six measures of COVID-19 in the 98 countries for which data was available. The period examined spans the 36 weeks that followed every country’s hundredth confirmed case of COVID-19, using data available to 9 January 2021. Fourteen-day rolling averages of new daily figures were calculated for the following indicators:
An equally weighted average of the rankings across those indicators was then calculated for individual countries in each period and normalised to produce a score from 0 (worst performing) to 100 (best performing). Collectively, these indicators point to how well or poorly countries have managed the pandemic in the 36 weeks that followed their hundredth confirmed case of COVID-19.
Further information on methodology, choice of indicators, and individual country scores and rankings can be found at the end of the Interactive.
Although the coronavirus outbreak started in China, countries in the Asia–Pacific, on average, proved the most successful at containing the pandemic. By contrast, the rapid spread of COVID-19 along the main arteries of globalisation quickly overwhelmed first Europe and then the United States. However, Europe also registered the greatest improvement over time of any region — with most countries there at one point exceeding the average performance of countries in the Asia–Pacific — before succumbing to a second, more severe, wave of the pandemic in the final months of 2020. Synchronous lockdowns across the highly integrated European continent successfully quelled the first wave, but more open borders left countries vulnerable to renewed outbreaks in neighbouring countries.
Meanwhile, the spread of the pandemic only accelerated in much of the Americas (North and South), making it the worst affected continent globally. Many countries in the Middle East and Africa managed to halt the initial progress of the pandemic with robust preventative measures. The regional situation eventually worsened there, before stabilising again in the second half of 2020.
The tools to contain the spread of COVID-19 — stay-at-home orders, lockdowns, and border closures — have been common to most countries. But how governments convinced or compelled their citizens to adhere to these measures often reflected the nature of their political systems.
Despite initial differences, the performance of all regime types in managing the coronavirus converged over time. On average, countries with authoritarian models had no prolonged advantage in suppressing the virus. Indeed, despite a difficult start and some notable exceptions, including the United States and the United Kingdom, democracies found marginally more success than other forms of government in their handling of the pandemic over the examined period. By contrast, many hybrid regimes, such as Ukraine and Bolivia, appeared least able to meet the challenge.
Categorising countries based on their population size revealed the greatest differences in experiences with the COVID-19 challenge. These results stand even after taking into account per capita indicators to evaluate performance, minimising the likelihood of a methodological bias against countries with more infections because they have larger populations. The fact that internal borders are often more open and porous than international borders may have facilitated the spread of the virus within countries with larger populations.
At the outset of the global pandemic, there was little discernible difference in country performance by population size. However, experiences between large, medium, and small populations diverged markedly less than a month after countries recorded their hundredth COVID-19 case. Smaller countries with populations of fewer than 10 million people consistently outperformed their larger counterparts throughout 2020, although this lead narrowed slightly towards the end of the examined period.
It is perhaps unsurprising that countries with higher per capita incomes had more resources available to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and performed better on average than developing countries for most of the crisis to date. More surprising is that many developing countries were able to cope with the initial outbreak of the pandemic and that advanced economies, as a grouping, lost their lead by the end of 2020 — with infections surging again in many places that had achieved apparent success in suppressing first waves of the pandemic.
Richer countries were quickly overwhelmed when the virus first emerged. International air travel accelerated virus transmission from abroad in these countries. By contrast, many governments in developing countries had more lead time — and often a greater sense of urgency — to put in place preventative measures after the scale and severity of the global crisis became known.
The relatively ‘low-tech’ nature of the health measures used to mitigate the spread of the virus to date, including large-scale lockdowns, may have created a more level playing field between developed and developing countries in the management of COVID-19. Despite this, the uneven deployment of the first vaccines against COVID-19 could give richer countries a decisive upper hand in crisis recovery efforts, and leave poorer countries fighting against the pandemic for longer.
To compare specific combinations of countries, use the search bar to make up to five selections.
This table provides a ranked comparison of the performance of countries in managing the COVID-19 pandemic in the 36 weeks following their hundredth confirmed case of the virus, using data available to 9 January 2021. In total, 98 countries were evaluated, based on the availability of data across the six indicators used to construct this Index. *
Results can be sorted by rank or alphabetically.
Trinidad and Tobago
United Arab Emirates
Democratic Republic of Congo
* Please note: China was not included in this ranking due to a lack of publicly available data on testing.
Data for Taiwan is provided separately to that of China.
In approaching the task of measuring the comparative effectiveness of countries’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of criteria are relevant. Fewer reported cases and deaths, both in aggregate and per capita terms, point towards a better response to the virus. More tests conducted on a per capita basis reveal a more accurate picture of the extent of the pandemic at the national level. Lower rates of positive tests, meanwhile, indicate greater degrees of control over the transmission of COVID-19.
To gauge the relative performance of countries at different points in the pandemic, this Interactive tracked six measures of COVID-19 prevalence in countries with publicly available and comparable data. In total, 98 countries were evaluated in this Interactive in the 36 weeks that followed their hundredth confirmed case of COVID-19, using data available to 9 January 2021. Data was extracted from the Our World in Data series, which is maintained by researchers at the University of Oxford and the non-for-profit Global Change Data Lab.
Fourteen-day rolling averages of new daily figures were calculated for the following indicators:
Collectively, these indicators point to how well or poorly countries have managed the pandemic. An equally weighted average of the rankings across the six indicators was normalised for each country to produce a score between 0 (worst performing) and 100 (best performing) on any given day in the 36 weeks that followed their hundredth confirmed case of COVID-19.
A score of 100 indicates that a country achieved the best average score across the six indicators compared to all other countries examined at a comparable point in time. Conversely, a score of 0 indicates that a country had the worst average score at a given moment during the pandemic.
Performance by types of countries was calculated by taking the average score of all countries that fell into the relevant category, where categories were determined based on the criteria set out below.
Regions were determined on the basis of commonly classified geographical groupings. The designation of political systems is based on The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index 2019, with democracies comprising full and flawed democracies. Countries were considered to have a large, medium, or small population size if they had populations of over 100 million, between 10–100 million, or fewer than 10 million, respectively. The categorisation of advanced and developing economies follows the designations used by the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook.