People wear face masks in Vietnam's southern Kien Giang province.
Kati Bohmbach

It was the kind of definitive piece of information that has been rare since the COVID-19 pandemic began: On Monday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that coronavirus transmission has been officially eliminated in the country, since its appearance there in late February. According to the Director-General of Health, it has been at least 17 days since the last new case of the country was reported and the last person being treated for the disease has recovered.


"With care and commitment our team of 5 million has united to protect New Zealanders' health and ensure we now have a head-start on our economic recovery," the prime minister said of the cooperation from New Zealand's population throughout coronavirus containment measures since the virus began its rapid spread across the island nation at the beginning of March.

When the number of coronavirus cases jumped to 800 in mid-March, almost entirely due to citizens returning home from abroad, the country decided to shift gears from virus mitigation to virus elimination, with an ambitious four-tiered response system. With mitigation measures, like closing schools to "flatten the curve," countries are acting in response to the pandemic's progression. With elimination measures, however, the order is reversed, with strong measures imposed at the start of the outbreak for maximum prevention of the introduction and transmission of the virus.

The mandatory lockdown system is now at its lowest tier, with no more social distancing measures or bans on public gatherings. Citizens can now go to work and move about the country freely, however, the country is still working out how it can reopen its largest export industry, tourism, as international borders remain closed.

Ardern revealed her plans for reviving the economy, saying, "We have done really well as a nation... we are not done yet." One proposal that would allow for tourism with less of the risks would be opening up a controlled "transtasman bubble" between parts of Australia and other nearby islands like Fiji and Tonga, which also have not been as hard hit by the virus.

New Zealand isn't alone in limiting the toll of the virus. Here are some of the countries that have stood out — whether thanks to public policy, good fortune or some combination of the two — as relative success stories during the global outbreak:


VIETNAM: Despite its long and porous shared border with China, where the virus emerged, Vietnam has no recorded COVID-19 deaths.

  • Numbers: According to the Hanoi Times, the current rate of people cured compared to infected is 95.2% with 332 people infected, 316 people recovered. The country has now gone 53 days without a domestically transmitted infection.
  • Factors: According to a top Vietnamese envoy, the country was able to keep its national numbers low because of early awareness and public adherence to social distancing.


SOUTH KOREA: In a matter of months, South Korea was able to go from the nation second hardest-hit by the virus after China, to lifting some social distancing restrictions as early as April.

  • Numbers: The country has seen a slight uptick in the number of cases in the past few weeks, with a new national total of 11,852 infected and 274 virus-related deaths, though some 1,000 of these infections are attributed to South Korean nationals returning from abroad.
  • Factors: South Korea has been hailed as a successful example of how acting quickly to implement mass testing and contact tracing nationwide can effectively flatten the curve of the coronavirus.


JORDAN: The government of Jordan ended its restrictive curfew to suppress the spread of coronavirus last Saturday and a number of sectors are set to resume.

  • Numbers: Health Minister Saad Jaber reported 23 new cases of coronavirus on Monday, bringing the total number of cases in the kingdom to 831.
  • Factors: Jordan's low numbers throughout the virus' spread have been attributed to its early and systemic action. The country formed and mobilized an Epidemics Committee by late January, right as the virus was taking hold in China, at least five weeks before the first coronavirus case was reported in Jordan at the beginning of March.

Slovak police and military control travelers to Slovakia on the Austrian-Slovak border — Photo: Alex Halada/APA Picturedesk/ZUMA


SLOVAKIA: Slovakia has seen one of the lowest death rates in Europe and, as of mid-May, citizens have been able to move about freely, with many public and commercial spaces now open, and even across shared borders with Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Switzerland and Slovenia.

  • Numbers: The number of new coronavirus cases has remained mostly in the single digits since the end of April. Today, there are 1,531 infections with 1,402 recoveries and just 28 deaths.
  • Factors: Since the beginning of the pandemic's spread, Slovakia was able to go from one of the least prepared countries in the EU to one of the most fortunate after imposing one the earliest and harshest lockdowns. Some attributing factors to their success were the Slovak public's trust and adherence to the government's restrictions and the country's media.


LUXEMBOURG: Despite neighboring EU countries being hit hard by the coronavirus, the tiny land-locked nation of Luxembourg has fared relatively well by comparison, even accepting infected patients from France in their hospitals.

  • Numbers: As of Monday, only one new case of the virus was recorded and no new deaths in over 15 days. At least 935 patients who were infected have recovered and roughly 26 of the people currently infected remain in the hospital.
  • Factors: Since the onset of the virus, the country has carried out over 88,300 coronavirus tests and kept the reproduction rate of the virus around 0.5%.


ICELAND: Iceland seems to have weathered the storm of coronavirus, with some of the lowest numbers recorded anywhere. Life has nearly returned to normal, with social distancing mandates lifted and most businesses reopened. The country is also hoping to open back up to tourism as early as June 15.

  • Numbers: Throughout the month of May, only six new coronavirus cases were detected and so far, there have only been three new cases reported this month, bringing the national total of people infected up to 1,807 with 10 deaths.
  • Factors: In part due to its relatively small population as well as the early action at the end of February taken to curb the spread, Iceland was able to successfully employ contact tracing and track each coronavirus case as it appeared on the island.


URUGUAY: Despite neighboring Latin American countries, like Brazil, being hard hit by the coronavirus, Uruguay has managed to keep their numbers relatively low.

  • Numbers: As of Sunday, the country has recorded only 845 cases of coronavirus and 23 deaths.
  • Factors: Surprisingly enough, the small country and its citizens never went into lockdown, according to the director of the Institut Pasteur in Montevideo. Instead, it chose to close borders and unnecessary activities as soon as the first few coronavirus cases were confirmed in the country on March 13, well before other Latin American countries did so.
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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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