Covid has reached every corner of the world – but these three places claim to be virus-free

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The highly transmissible Omicron variant has shortened the list of countries that have so far managed to escape the Covid-19 pandemic, breached the long-standing defenses of numerous Pacific island nations and forced an unprecedented admission of the crisis in North Korea, with only one country remained and a handful of areas still claiming to be Covid-free.

Important facts

Turkmenistan, a landlocked country of more than 6 million people in Central Asia, is today the only nation in the world still claiming to be completely free of Covid.

The claim fits ill with informal accounts of the disease originating from inside the mysterious country and has been disputed by experts – including the World Health Organization – who believe it is backed by dishonest data reported by Turkmen officials.

Tokelau and St Helena, or territories of New Zealand and Great Britain respectively, are the only remaining regions still claiming to be free of Covid-19 and have not reported a single case of Covid-19 to the WHO, indicated by their remote and strict locations is supported quarantine procedures.

Covid infections skyrocketed in the Marshall Islands in August after the country confirmed its first local outbreak – it had previously reported cases among travelers but these have been contained – ending its stint as one of the few remaining Covid-free countries.

The situation mirrors the experiences of several other Pacific island communities this year – including Niue, Kiribati, Samoa, Nauru, Vanuatu, Tonga and Micronesia, potentially the last country with a population of more than 100,000 people to lose its Covid-free status – which has managed to keep the virus at bay for years through a mix of geographic isolation, tight border controls and strict quarantine rules.

North Korea, which for more than two years denied having cases of Covid-19, acknowledged an outbreak in May and declared a national emergency after the virus exploded among its completely unvaccinated population.

key background

Since China first reported a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan in late 2019, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, has spread rapidly around the world. Travel restrictions, quarantines, and harsh, even absurd, containment measures have done little to prevent its spread, especially as more transmissible variants have emerged. Outbreaks have affected even the most isolated communities, such as island nations or remote indigenous tribes. Such groups are typically vulnerable to emerging infectious diseases compared to other populations, with sometimes days of medical care, higher rates of other health conditions, and lack of access to essential preventive measures. While a number of countries such as Australia and New Zealand maintained strict border controls to keep the virus out, almost all countries have now abandoned the strictest guidelines for eliminating the virus and are learning to adapt and live with it, despite China’s “zero Covid” policy is a notable exception.

Surprising fact

Remote polar regions have also been hit by the virus. Antarctica was the latest continent to lose its Covid-free status in late 2020, when the Chilean army reported a spate of cases at its Bernardo O’Higgins research station. At least two other outbreaks have been recorded on the continent, one among workers at a Belgian research base from December 2021 and another among staff at Argentina’s La Esperanza research base in January 2022. The first case of Covid-19 in the Arctic—a region covering parts of Canada, Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and USA – was reported in late February 2020. Since then, nearly 2.5 million residents have been infected (out of a population of 7 million). ) and more than 28,600 have died.

Big number

602 million. This is how many cases of Covid-19 have been reported worldwide since the pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins University (JHU). According to JHU, the US has reported more cases than any other country — 94 million — followed by India (44 million), France (35 million), Brazil (34 million) and Germany (32 million). Nearly 6.5 million have died from the virus, according to JHU data, led by the US (1 million), Brazil (684,000), India (528,000) and Russia (376,000).

What we don’t know

The true toll of Covid-19 is likely to be far greater than official figures suggest. Testing quality and capacity varies widely between countries, asymptomatic individuals are unlikely to be picked up reliably, and different nations use different criteria for recording cases and deaths, making direct comparisons difficult. The number of excess deaths, a metric that compares the number of deaths to those expected based on past experience, is a more accurate measure of the impact of the pandemic and includes those not counted by official statistics as well as those that might be died from causes related to the pandemic. Estimates of the number of deaths suggest the death toll is far higher than official figures suggest, possibly three times higher. While more accurate, this number doesn’t even come close to capturing the experiences of many survivors who have endured ongoing symptoms of Long Covid, struggles during the pandemic, and long-term effects on children from prolonged shutdowns.

Further reading

Turkmenistan: Getting Covid in a country where there are officially no cases (BBC)

Study results (Forbes) – The true death toll from the Covid pandemic could be three times higher than the official number

China faces Omicron ‘tsunami’ if it abandons controversial zero-Covid policy, researchers warn (Forbes)

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