At the height of the first wave, places like China, Germany, South Korea and New Zealand showed that it was possible to slow the pandemic enough to limit infections and deaths while still reopening businesses and schools.
But that requires a combination of elements that may be beyond the reach of poorer countries — and that even ones like the United States have not been able to muster: wide-scale testing, contact tracing, quarantining, social distancing, mask wearing, providing protective gear, developing a clear and consistent strategy, and being willing to shut things down in a hurry when trouble arises.
Time and again, experts say, governments reacted too slowly, waiting until their own countries or regions were under siege, either dismissing the threat or seeing it as China’s problem, or Italy’s, or New York’s.
Thomas R. Frieden, a former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that a major failing had been in governments’ communication with the public, nowhere more so than in the United States.
“You have standard principles of risk communication: Be first, be right, be credible, be empathetic,” he said. “If you tried to violate those principles more than the Trump administration has, I don’t think you could.”
The world now knows how to bend the curve of the pandemic — not to eliminate risk, but to keep it to a manageable level — and there have been surprises along the way.
Masks turned out to be more helpful than Western experts initially predicted. Social distancing on an unheard-of scale has been more feasible and effective than anticipated. The difference in danger between an outdoor gathering and an indoor one is greater than expected.