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Coronavirus

South Korea and China earn high marks in pandemic safety ranking

Israel leads while Philippines and Indonesia lag on venture fund's list

Despite doubts about China's transparency, analysts give it credit for its aggressive pandemic response, including in Wuhan where the outbreak started.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Eight of the 10 safest places to ride out the coronavirus pandemic are in the Asia-Pacific region, including mainland China, according to new research released on Tuesday.

Pockets of South and Southeast Asia face serious risks, however, including the Philippines.

Deep Knowledge Ventures, a Hong Kong-based venture capital fund that targets health care and longevity technology, is evaluating the crisis performance of 150 countries and territories in an ongoing project.

How countries respond today, the fund believes, will determine their appeal as investment and business destinations tomorrow.

"The countries that will be able to provide long-lasting protection for their citizens, and stay stable, they will to some extent automatically attract financial activity," Dmitry Kaminskiy, DKV's founder and managing partner, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Israel stands in first place, unchanged from a previous safety ranking, earning 632.32 points out of a possible 700 thanks to its small territory, sophisticated health care, savvy use of technology and strong military. But the latest edition puts Germany in second place, up from ninth, while South Korea cracks the top three, up from 10th.

Then comes a list of Asia-Pacific neighbors: Australia, China, New Zealand, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong.

DKV, best known for appointing an AI algorithm to its board, is scoring countries based on more than 70 criteria and data from a range of sources, including the World Health Organization.

The safety ranking is broken down into categories such as "quarantine efficiency," including travel restrictions; "government management efficiency," which covers defense capabilities; "monitoring and detection," such as the scope of testing; and "emergency treatment readiness," which includes factors like the quantity of hospital beds.

Israel, Germany and South Korea have all grappled with significant COVID-19 outbreaks. But Kaminskiy said, "The point is that we are looking at not only when countries succeeded [in minimizing cases], but also looking at when a country was affected quite significantly but managed to stop it."

The top three have recorded thousands more cases than, say, New Zealand, which has seen only 1,300 infections and five deaths. Yet they have also stopped deaths from getting out of hand: About 100 people have died in Israel, 3,000 in Germany and 200 in South Korea, versus around 20,000 in hard-hit Italy and 10,000 in the U.S. state of New York alone.

The three have been stress-tested, and so far they are passing.

No country, arguably, has been tested as much as China, the original epicenter of the pandemic. The fund left it off the previous ranking in part due to "controversy" and "rumors" over its relatively low death rate -- roughly 3,300 out of around 82,000 infections. But Kaminskiy said his team of 10 analysts saw enough positives to slide China in at No. 5 on the safety table.

"China is as efficient as Israel in applying quarantine measures, especially considering their extreme size of population. At the same time, they are similarly efficient as Germany in terms of treatment," Kaminskiy said. "They really were capable, not just to put people on ventilators but to treat them."

He rattled off Chinese measures, from setting up field hospitals and performing blood transfusions from recovered patients to dispatching robot nurses and drones that tell people to stay home. Still, he cautioned that there are risk factors, including transparency.

"We cannot fully trust their data," he said.

Other places in the top 10 have won plenty of praise for their crisis management, such as Taiwan and Singapore. Kaminskiy stressed that "when you're comparing the leading countries, we need to go into very detailed specifics to understand what exact parameters affected their positions." Only about 11 points separate first place and 10th.

Contrasting ninth-ranked Japan with Israel, he explained that "in the opinion of our analysts, Japan has less efficient government management, but a more efficient level of preparedness for emergency treatment. Whereas in Israel, they're more efficient in tactical measures" like quarantines and lockdowns.

At the other end of the spectrum, an Asia-specific ranking that DKV released the same day shows several South and Southeast Asian countries plagued by low safety. Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines bring up the rear, underscoring recent reports of severely strained health systems.

Kaminskiy said these countries are likely to face "quite negative dynamics" in the coming weeks, lamenting the "inefficiency of government management" in the Philippines in particular.

Asia's middle ground consists of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and, at least for the moment, India.

Kaminskiy said India's roughly 10,000 cases and 300 deaths are "quite good" numbers given the population. Even so, and despite an ambitious lockdown, he finds it "a little bit of a mystery why the country is not yet affected" more seriously given poor sanitation and stretched resources.

The enduring unpredictability of the outbreak in India and elsewhere is a reminder that there is much we do not know about this coronavirus. Lingering health effects, treatments and vaccines are all up in the air.

But Kaminskiy is convinced countries that acquit themselves well now will have a long-term edge.

"Germany and China will now have stronger positions compared to their peers," he said. On the other hand, "Countries that show they cannot protect their citizens from this virus and provide long-lasting safety frameworks -- they will not be able to [prove] they can stay stable economically."

For countries with rapidly aging populations, like Japan, the test carries even higher stakes.

"This is one of the factors why Japan is not placed higher," said Kaminskiy, who is offering $1 million to the first person in the world to reach 123 years old. "The elderly population -- they're less protected from any viruses. Japan should think not only how to protect itself from this virus but how to protect the population in the next years."

COVID-19, Kaminskiy added, is not the first pandemic. And "it won't be the last."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated South Korea's approximate death toll.

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