Bengaluru: As the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, there are still a handful of countries that are reporting zero cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
According to data being aggregated by the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE), which is modelling the spread of the disease and shows data through a real-time dashboard, there are 15 such countries, which lie in Asia, Africa and and Oceania. The virus also hasn’t reached Antarctica, where there is no permanent human population.
Some of the countries reporting zero cases are located in remote areas of Oceania, such as the island regions of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, and thus were naturally able to isolate themselves very quickly. The two African countries not reporting cases might not have the virus, or might not have been able to detect it yet.
But there is a lot of speculation that the three Asian countries, among them landlocked ones with no natural borders, are likely not reporting true figures.
The countries in Asia with no reported cases are North Korea, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
It is no surprise that North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, ruled by the autocratic Kim Jong-un, has reported zero cases, as the country is notorious for cutting itself off from the rest of the world and not allowing any flow of information, and has the worst human rights ranking on the planet.
North Korea is not landlocked, but is bordered by China and Russia in the north and east, and South Korea in the south.
While the country does have government-sponsored free healthcare, it likely did not have the means to test for Covid-19 at all. WHO has reported that North Korea is testing and quarantining actively after receiving testing kits from China in January, while South Korea reported that its neighbour’s military went into lockdown for 30 days.
North Korean citizens are particularly susceptible to respiratory infections, which account for over 11 per cent of deaths annually. They also have high co-morbidities, including heart disease, which is the largest cause of death in the country. Most political and health experts agree that it is unlikely that North Korea has zero cases so far.
Tajikistan in central Asia is a mountainous, landlocked country, bordering Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China. Its land area is almost 90 per cent mountainous terrain. Tajikistan initially imposed a ban on entry of travellers from 35 affected countries in March, but rolled back its restrictions immediately. However, it did put arriving passengers in quarantine.
In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, there were cases early on from pilgrimages to Mecca, which many Tajiks also make. But Tajikistan has imposed no lockdown or ban on public events, and President Emomali Rahmon himself has appeared in public events as late as the end of March.
Tajikistan is also known as an autocratic state with low regard for human rights, including internet and information censorship.
It ranks quite low on health indices as well, with extremely high infant and maternal mortality rates, steadily decreasing life expectancy due to water pollution and poor nutrition, as well as incidences of malaria, TB, typhoid, and cholera. The country has been rated one of the highest at risk for an epidemic outbreak, and was given an $11 million grant by the World Bank to prepare its Covid-19 response.
Turkmenistan sits on the Caspian Sea coast and is bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. It is one of the least populated countries in Asia, at just 5.6 million. The country is also autocratic and also ranks quite low on human rights, with Human Rights Watch calling it one of the “most repressive countries”.
Turkmenistan is said to have extremely poor healthcare conditions with ill-qualified, incapable workers. It has imposed scattered restrictions in some places, but none nationally. It even held a mass cycling rally on World Health Day last week.
Turkmenistan has a history of suppressing facts, especially those relating to public health and outbreaks, including the plague.
The two countries in Africa that have reported zero cases are Lesotho and Comoros, and both have geographical advantages.
Comoros is an island nation, located between the eastern coast of the African continent and the large island of Madagascar. The World Health Organization has been working with the Comoros government, screening visitors for the virus since January. Around 250 people were quarantined at one point, but none tested positive. The country is currently under partial lockdown.
Lesotho is a completely landlocked country inside South Africa. It is one of the three countries in the world (the other two being the Vatican City and San Marino) to be completely surrounded by another. Lesotho is a high-altitude country; it’s the only one in the world which lies entirely over 1,000 m above sea level, and its lowest point is 1,400 m above sea level. It snows in Lesotho from May to September.
Lesotho is under lockdown until 21 April, and the government has issued economic interventions, involving the public and private sectors as well as students, to safeguard the country. It is also encouraging citizens currently abroad to not return home.
The eight countries without a single Covid-19 case in the Oceania region are the island nations of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga, Samoa, Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, Nauru, Palau, Vanuatu, and the Federated States of Micronesia.
All of these islands have a population under 700,000 with sparse healthcare facilities, and thus, acted extremely quickly to shut themselves down. Most of them quickly declared national emergencies. Experts say if an outbreak occurred on any of these islands, a large part of the population would succumb to it, as the rate of co-morbidities here (heart disease, chest conditions, diabetes) are very high.
Nauru’s actions are a case in point. It is the smallest country in the world after Monaco, and has the smallest population after Tuvalu — just about 10,000 people. It has only one hospital and no ventilators.
Nauru suspended flights to other nations as well as other islands nearby, and reduced its one remaining flight to Australia from thrice a week to once a fortnight. Local hotels were taken over as quarantine zones and any resident returning from Australia was placed in a two-week quarantine.
However, the islands cannot stay locked down forever as they depend on imports for survival. But it is highly likely that these groups of island are the very last place after Antarctica that the virus reaches on the planet.