The Countries that have Returned to Normal and How They've Done it.

In Canada and many other countries where a third - or fourth - wave of COVID-19 is in full swing, it can sometimes be hard to remember what our “normal” life looked like before the pandemic, or to look forward to what it might be like in the future. But some countries have been very successful at either containing the virus in the first place, or at fighting it back once it gained a foothold. Here are some of those success stories, which might give the rest of us a small glimmer of hope.

Australia and New Zealand: Travel shutdowns and strategic lockdowns

For these two island nations, geography definitely helped - it was easier for them to shut down international travel than for many other countries. But both nations were also able to call on well-established systems already in place for keeping foreign pathogens out of their backyards. Early on, they shut down all but the most essential international travel, and imposed strict hotel quarantines on anyone arriving from abroad. Diligent testing and tracing meant that when clusters of cases did pop up - as happened several times in Melbourne and in February 2021 in Auckland - they were identified promptly and regions were locked down immediately. As of April 2021, both countries only have a small number of identified and isolated cases, most people are able to go about their lives normally, and a “travel bubble” is opening up between the two nations.

Israel: Information sharing and proactive planning for vaccine roll-out

Although Israel was hit fairly hard in the earlier stages of the pandemic, once it became evident that a vaccine was on the horizon, the nation started planning ahead for what would become the fastest and most efficient roll-out in the world. Thanks to its relatively compact size, strong centralized healthcare system, and extensive experience in disaster planning and management, Israel was able to develop a comprehensive plan to target specific high-risk populations and distribute the vaccine quickly and efficiently. As of March 2021, more than half the population is fully vaccinated, rising to more than 90% for people over 70. Infection rates have dropped and many regions are able to exit lockdowns, albeit with masking, social distancing, and other public health precautions still in place. This has also allowed Israeli scientists to make significant contributions to our understanding of how vaccines affect disease transmission and severity, such as a recent study showing that people who are vaccinated and do get infected carry a four-times lower amount of virus and are less likely to pass it on, compared to people who are unvaccinated.

Vietnam, Taiwan, and Singapore: Widespread testing and contact tracing, and masks, masks, masks!

These countries had a front-row seat the last time a coronavirus changed our world - the SARS outbreak in 2003. That experience allowed them to be more vigilant and to start putting plans in place as soon as it became evident in early 2020 that a new viral pneumonia was spreading in China. Even before any cases were detected within their borders, these nations were restricting travel, cancelling public events, and setting up robust and technologically advanced testing and contact tracing systems. Many people were already in the habit of wearing masks in public - especially during cold and flu season - so they redoubled their efforts with this new threat on the horizon. The government of Taiwan even started directly distributing face masks through convenience stores, and limiting the number of masks that travellers could take when leaving the country, to ensure that enough were left for people at home. 

Although these countries still need to be vigilant to detect and contain outbreaks when they crop up, for most people it’s business as usual, and as vaccination becomes more widespread in the region, the possibilities of vaccine passports and travel bubbles are getting closer.