Australia has been ranked one of the world’s best performers in a report released by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) earlier this month, which assesses the policy response to coronavirus across a number of OECD countries.
Along with Denmark, Israel and Iceland, Australia scored 3.44 out of a possible perfect score of 4, earning it a ‘Very good’ rating, with only Austria (3.56), Germany (3.56) and New Zealand (3.67) scoring higher.
Other key findings of the report revealed some surprises. While few would be shocked to see the UK ranked among the low performers, interestingly the EIU’s methodology ranked the USA (the country recording the highest number of deaths worldwide) among the better mid-performers, and South Korea (highly praised for its response to COVID-19) on the lower side of mid-performers.
To explain this, it’s important to understand the index methodology. Each country was assessed against six key criteria, split into two categories. The first category includes three ‘quality of response’ criteria (number of tests, provision of non-COVID-19 healthcare and the number of above-average excess deaths). The second category includes three mitigating factors, to take pre-existing risk factors into account (share of older population, obesity prevalence and number of international arrivals).
This second category of mitigating factors explains the surprising results for the USA and South Korea.
The USA’s high number of deaths reflects existing risk factors, such as a high prevalence of obesity and an ageing population. When assessed against these risk factors, performance was not as poor as crude data may suggest. South Korea does not share this risk profile, with low levels of obesity and a younger than average population when compared to other OECD countries, accounting for its less than stellar ranking. (However, it should also be noted that the EIU scored South Korea relatively low for testing  per million people in the quality of response criteria, which contradicts numerous reports by a number of reputable sources regarding the high level of testing Korea has conducted.)
Australia, when assessed against both categories, scored best responses in category one and had a fairly high risk profile in terms of obesity prevalence and an aged population in category 2, creating its high overall score. The UK’s risk profile is similar to Australia’s, but its death rate and poor initial management of the pandemic explain its low overall score.
Rankings for all countries are summarised below. Click on the table to see a larger PDF.
Highest scores – ‘Very good’: New Zealand, Austria, Germany, Australia, Denmark, Iceland, Israel and Norway
(EIU, p.7) ‘These countries have so far recorded low numbers of extra deaths during the pandemic, put solid tracking and testing programmes in place, and continued to provide healthcare services to non-coronavirus patients. This is a particularly impressive feat, given that in most of these countries over-65s account for a significant share of the population, making them vulnerable to severe coronavirus infection. Overall, these countries appear to have succeeded in containing the pandemic because they reacted early and swiftly. Not all of them introduced stringent lockdowns, but all implemented aggressive testing and tracing programmes.’
Mid-rank scores – ‘Good’ and ‘Fair’: Portugal, Chile, France, USA; Japan, Switzerland, South Korea, Sweden, the Netherlands
(EIU, p.8) ‘The USA ranking provides interesting insights. The country records the highest number of deaths worldwide, partly reflecting population size and, perhaps, the poor initial response of the USA administration. However, the high number of deaths also reflects existing risk factors, such as a high prevalence of obesity and an ageing population. When assessed against these risk factors, the USA’s performance is not as poor as the crude data may suggest. In fact, it is better than that of most of the countries that shared a similar risk profile.
Also, Chile’s performance is comparable to that of France or the USA, and much better than that of the UK, for instance. This shows that richer countries did not necessarily tackle the pandemic better than less affluent ones.’
Lowest scores – ‘Poor’: Italy, Spain, the UK and Belgium
(EIU, p.7) ‘This is partly understandable in the case of Italy and Spain: these countries were the first in Europe to be hit by the pandemic and had little time to prepare. However, it is harder to explain the UK’s poor score. The global connectivity of the UK—and especially London—may help to explain its high excess death toll (as at early June, UK statistics show that the number of extra deaths per million people is the second highest in the world, after Spain), but the country had a slower build-up of cases than other European countries and more time to prepare. In addition, Britain’s centralised public healthcare system provided the government with crucial data as to who was most at risk. An insufficiently fast and co-ordinated response, an initial lack of testing capacity, and a decision to suspend track and trace in early March may help to explain why the UK became an outlier.’
 Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU). (17 June 2020). How well have OECD countries responded to the coronavirus crisis? Retrieved from https://www.eiu.com/public/topical_report.aspx?campaignid=response-covid-rank
 Jones, K. (15 Jan 2020). The Problem of an Aging Global Population, Shown by Country. Retrieved from Source: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/aging-global-population-problem/ (Note: source uses OECD data, originally available here: OECD (2016). Economic Surveys: Korea. https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888933355871)
 Won, S. (19 June 2020). COVID-19 test case total number South Korea 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1102818/south-korea-covid-19-test-total-number/ “As of June 19 2020, over 1.16 million COVID-19 tests were conducted in South Korea.”