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Lessons Learned After 1 Million Global Coronavirus Deaths


Well, let's talk about what lessons have been learned from different parts of the world. We have three NPR correspondents with us to talk about this - Anthony Kuhn from Seoul, South Korea, Sylvia Poggioli in Rome and Lauren Frayer, who covers India. Thanks to all of you for being here.



LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

GREENE: Anthony, I guess I'd love to start with you. I mean, the virus first appeared in East Asia in Hubei Province, China. Of course, we've heard the Trump administration blame China for the spread of the virus around the world. But, I mean, if we remember, China actually mobilized pretty quickly to protect its own people, right?

KUHN: That's correct. At first, though, it did quash the message and punish the messengers, the doctors who first warned people about it. But after that, through a very strict lockdown, they managed to flatten their curve and get infections way down. And from there, it spread on to Japan and South Korea. And at the end of the day, or at least at this time, all three of these countries are doing a lot better than Western countries and for different reasons. In China's case, the lockdown was very strict. In South Korea, it was not. In Japan, it was not either. And they basically just requested people to stay at home, and they did. So some people say that there are reasons for this. There are cultural factors. For example, in Japan, people talk about a concept called (non-English language spoken) which means that you try to control yourself and restrain yourself for other people's sake. So I think the cultural factors are there, and I think they matter.

GREENE: Well, Sylvia, let's turn to Italy. I mean, this is where we saw cases, you know, weeks after South Korea. But it sounds like Italians, you know, did not exactly react the same way people in South Korea were reacting. And why was that?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, it was the first country outside of Asia to be hit by the virus. And the first recognized case was in late February. But it's clear that COVID-19 had been circulating under the radar for several weeks before that. But those were misdiagnosed as severe cases of the flu. Doctors and nurses, they were unprepared for COVID-19. They didn't have the necessary protective gear. And in order to make room in hospitals and ICU units, patients with other ailments were transferred to nursing homes, but they weren't tested first for COVID-19. That's how, in a way, the virus spread so quickly among the elderly and it took such a high toll on Italy's large aging population. Now, Italy was then the first country to introduce a nationwide lockdown, and it imposed some of the toughest restrictions. But Italians overwhelmingly went along and toughed it out for two months. The curve came down. And when Italy lifted the lockdown and reopened, it did so very, very gradually.

GREENE: Well, Lauren, let me turn to you. I mean, we think about India right now - I mean, that country is reporting more new daily cases than anywhere else in the world. I mean, what why has COVID hit months later than elsewhere?

FRAYER: India actually did have COVID cases way back in March, but it was mostly foreign tourists. Actually one of the early clusters in India was traced to a group of Italian tourists. So back then, it was very much seen as a foreigner's disease. Now, of course, has is spread. India crossed the 6 million mark in terms of total confirmed cases. The onset of the pandemic in India, though, was delayed in part because of a very early, very strict lockdown. It was, in fact, the biggest coronavirus lockdown in the world. People got four hours' notice of being told not to leave their homes. So white-collar workers in India adapted OK to working from home, ordering takeout. Hundreds of millions of Indians live in poverty, and they could not adapt as well. And so particularly migrant workers got stranded at their workplaces without food or wages. And that exodus of laid off workers streaming back to their home villages not only created this upheaval in the country but also ended up spreading COVID all over the country. So after those scenes, the government decided it had to open up because of this economic damage. And actually India's economy shrank nearly 24% last quarter. It's opened up, and the virus is now surging.

GREENE: Wow. All right. So surging now in India. Let's talk about where things stand elsewhere. I mean, Anthony, the countries you cover, I mean, are things actually coming back to some sense of normalcy?

KUHN: Well, in the first quarter of this year, China's economy contracted quite a bit, but it rebounded in the second quarter. And that's, you know, serious growth and life has gotten a lot more normal. South Korea has just managed to suppress its second wave. Their GDP is projected to lose about 1% this year, which is about best of any developed economy. And Japan is in slightly worse shape because their economy has been barely growing for a long time, and they were already being hit by a consumption tax and a trade war between U.S. and China. But in general, these countries that escaped massive casualties and infections have all come out better economically because of it.

GREENE: And, Sylvia, I mean, we know Italy's economy suffered as well, like almost every country, you know, around the world. But the COVID numbers seem pretty low right now, I mean, and Italy seems to be faring better than elsewhere in Europe.

POGGIOLI: Yes. Suddenly, it's become Europe's poster child in curbing the virus. There have been some upticks in the last few weeks but nothing compared to France, Spain and even Germany. People are observing the rules, and Italians, like other Europeans, are pretty mystified and horrified by how the infections are spreading so vastly in the United States. Now, you know, here, the anti-mask movement is really miniscule. I think one reason is that the threat posed by plagues is kind of enshrined in the Italians' literature. And so the notion of the plague is not just part of the cultural DNA, it's even embedded in the language.

GREENE: Lauren, let me finish with you. I mean, India is facing this dire circumstances right now. Anything keeping people hopeful?

FRAYER: Yeah, it's dire. If the virus continues to spread at this rate, we'll probably overtake the U.S. in total cases sometime in the next couple weeks. But you asked if there's any reason to be hopeful. The fatality rate in India appears to be low, and that's been chalked up to youth demographics. India - more than half the population is under the age of 25, so there's the idea that maybe they've been able to survive the virus better than other populations. That said, a very small minority of deaths in India are ever medically certified. So it's really difficult to know how many people are dying, and the numbers could be way off. India in recent weeks has ramped up testing. A few days ago, it did a million and a half tests in just one 24-hour period. So, I mean, that's huge. And it gives authorities a better picture of just how far this virus has spread in the Indian population.

GREENE: As we mark this moment, a million deaths from coronavirus around the world. Speaking to our colleagues, NPR's Lauren Frayer covers India, Sylvia Poggioli in Rome and Anthony Kuhn in Seoul, thanks to all of you.

FRAYER: Thank you.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

KUHN: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.