Countries across the globe are still trying to cope with the spread of Covid-19 pandemic.  As of May 13th,, 2020, the virus has spread in 212 countries, infecting about 4.3 million and causing the death of about 290 thousand people.

To cope with the further spread, there are two common poles of policies to be put in place: a social distancing or a lockdown. Social distancing aims to break the transmission of the pandemic by closing all places of socializing like cafes, malls and other public areas. Lockdowns are more stringent strategy entailing complete stoppage of any sort of public movement except essential services. Some countries opt to implement combination of policies, including self-quarantine, isolation or curfew.

We might be interested to see how effective are these policies. Denmark and Sweden might be a good example as both countries have some commonalities but approached the spread of pandemic in different ways.

The size of both countries is not comparable but the capital cities share several similarities. About 27% of Stockholmers are immigrants of non-Swedish background. The largest foreign-born groups are Finns, Iraqis, and Iranian. Likewise, just over 73% of the people of Copenhagen are of Danish origin. The immigrants mostly came from Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq, and Poland.

Other variables such as GDP per capita, share of services sector to GDP, the ratio of debt per capita, percentage defense on budget, corruption index, and human capital ranking are relatively comparable. The proportion of the elderly population at 20% is also identical.

Moreover, both countries are well represented on the Forbes Global 2000. While three of the largest Swedish companies might have been well-known  in Indonesia, Volvo (truck), Ericsson and H&M, the Dane has Maersk which is known as among the largest shipping companies in the world headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark, with subsidiaries and offices across 130 countries globally.

In terms of openness, both the Copenhagen Kastrup airport and Stockholm airports cater the same amount of passengers about 30 million in 2019. Note that there are three airports servicing passengers’ movement in Stockholm: Arlanda, Bromma and Skavsta.

Nonetheless, the reaction towards pandemic is very different in both countries. Denmark was one of the first countries in Europe to close its borders. From as early as 13th of March 2020, the authority has closed all schools, kindergartens, and cafes and banned all gatherings of more than ten people.

However, Denmark was also among the first European countries to put the lockdown into gradual opening. Shortly, Denmark will allow restaurants with terrace to reopen up to 30% of their capacity and hotels to accept bookings as long as they can maintain the social distancing.

Sweden took a more flexible ways of ‘Social Distancing’ and ‘Herd Immunity’. The strategy might allow the spread of the virus to develop the self-immunity among the population. They put some rules such as no gathering of more than 50 people, and limitation of mobility especially for the elderlies.

There is stark contrast in the health outcomes. By 11 May 2020, the recovered patient in Denmark is almost twice of those in Sweden. Moreover, the death rate in Denmark is as low as 92 per 1 million people compared with 318 in Sweden.

The economic outcomes also slightly favor Denmark than Sweden. The Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI)- showing the direction of economic trends in the manufacturing and service sectors- has been slightly greater in Denmark during and after the relaxation of the lockdown. The Danish´s PMI was 48 in March and dropped to 38 in April 2020. However, Sweden recorded lower at 43 in March and 37 in April. The financial sector is not different. Bloomberg reported that the fluctuation OMX Copenhagen 20 Index is only 4.5% during March-April compared to 4.8% in Stockholm.

The lesson learnt might not be straightforward for the developing world. Regardless of the policy measures being taken, they might impose existential crisis on their livelihood. The urban spaces are crowded and, in most cases, a considerable number of urban dwellers work in the informal sector.

Among the developing countries in Asia, Vietnam is currently on the plateauing stage followed by Thailand. These countries successfully maintained social distancing while keeping the economic wheel running at a slow pace. Whereas, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are still in the climbing stage with virtually no effective lockdown measure implemented and now in an additional pressure to fully open up soon.  

How did the more successful countries such as Vietnam and Thailand move towards the plateau first? In their attempts fighting against the pandemic, the government and the residents both knew that the either lockdown or social distancing is painful but the governments resorted to effective, and consistent communication. This made it clear for the residents to understand that a hardship of few days may help them to win the fight and made them ready in case a newer and stronger strain of the virus hits them again.  

These measures match with 2009 arguments of  Elaine Vaughan and Timothy Tinker that life circumstances, cultural norms and perspectives of risk influence the behavior during pandemic. Hence, the extent of the pandemic partly depends on the effective health risk communications.

Indonesia needs to learn the importance of putting regulation bold and consistent so to give clear guidance to the public at large. Lifting the restriction before it reached measured targets might just delay the public health as well as economic recoveries. Consistent regulatory measures is mandatory as the current spread of the virus  has been reaching out smaller cities without prior exposure to the global pandemic.

- Ibrahim Kholilul Rohman dan Hasib Ahsan

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