According to official reports, the Wuhan coronavirus has not quite covered the entire world yet. Several countries, including a few with sizable populations, are reporting zero infections.
A number of these zero reports are viewed with skepticism, particularly from authoritarian regimes that might not want to admit they are battling the virus, or from countries where testing resources are so minimal that they could be unaware of coronavirus infections among their populations.
A full list of the countries reporting no infections as of March 17 was published by Pharmaceutical Technology on Wednesday. Many of these countries are small and isolated:
- Cape Verde
- Central African Republic
- DPRK (North Korea)
- El Salvador
- Federated States of Micronesia
- Kyrgyz Republic
- Papua New Guinea
- Republic of Yemen
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Saint Lucia
- Sierra Leone
- São Tomé and Príncipe
- The Bahamas
- The Gambia
- Western Sahara
Several countries reported a small number of possible infections which were said to have tested negative. These include:
- Lao People’s Democratic Republic
- Republic of Palau
- Republic of the Marshall Islands
- Solomon Islands
A few of the countries listed in both categories stand out as special topics of concern for international health experts. Two of the most obviously problematic are North Korea (the DPRK) and Syria. Few outside observers believe either of these countries is completely free of the coronavirus, as they officially claim to be.
As Pharmaceutical Technology noted, the Syrian government is at least taking highly publicized steps to control coronavirus infection, including border restrictions, mandatory testing at airports, and protective equipment plus basic medical training for airline staff and border guards.
U.S. News and World Report on Wednesday cited concerns that Syria’s healthcare system has been destroyed by a decade of savage civil war, most of the public has very good reason to distrust government officials, and a huge portion of its population has been displaced from their homes into crowded and unsanitary refugee camps. Some doctors working in Syria believe they may have observed coronavirus cases, but they lacked the resources to perform conclusive tests.
“The assertion that the virus is not present in Syria has been met with skepticism, particularly given that all of Syria’s neighbors have reported cases and given the close relationship between the Syrian government and neighboring Iran, which with more than 17,000 reported cases and more than 1,100 deaths is one of the countries hit hardest by the virus. Pakistani officials have asserted that at least five cases in their country came from people who had come from Syria by way of Qatar,” U.S. News reported.
On the other hand, an anonymous medical resident in Damascus said it was possible coronavirus infections would remain minimal because “there is no tourism” and “we are living in lockdown already.”
Sandwiched between the source of the coronavirus in China and a major outbreak in South Korea, North Korea almost certainly has infections it will not admit to.
U.S. intelligence noted the North Korean military has “fundamentally been on lockdown” for the past month, an unprecedented level of subdued activity that suggests something is very wrong inside the secretive communist country. Other observers pointed to the deranged vehemence of North Korea’s denials as evidence it probably has a good number of coronavirus cases to deny. Pyongyang simply will never admit to having a problem it cannot control.
As with Syria, North Korea has a powerful and murderous government that would not hesitate to take extreme measures against an epidemic that threatened the regime. As Korea Society President Thomas Byrne wryly put it to Bloomberg News on Monday, “There’s no human rights or social freedom concerns, there’s probably no concern for people starving to death. They can really enforce social distancing.”
Another troubling government whose claims of zero infections are met with skepticism is Myanmar, which has a 1,400-mile border with China. The civilian leader of the country, disgraced Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, insisted in a televised address on Monday that “no one in our country is infected with COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus].”
Other officials admitted at least ten patients are in isolation and awaiting test results. During her address, Suu Kyi asked for public donations to a coronavirus defense fund, just in case anyone ever tests positive.
One spokesman for the government suggested the superior “lifestyle and diet” of Myanmar is protecting its people from the extremely contagious disease. Another even more bizarrely claimed that Myanmar is less vulnerable to the epidemic because people are more likely to use cash money than credit cards, which is the opposite of how most epidemiologists feel about those mediums of exchange.
“Such irresponsible statements clash with everything known about the coronavirus outbreak, defy reality, and only serve to give a false sense of security to the country’s people about the disease and their risks of infection,” Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said of Myanmar’s attitude.
“The government’s public lack of concern has sparked rumors and speculation about the government’s response, leaving many distrustful and unable to make informed decisions for their families,” he added.
El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele announced a national coronavirus quarantine last week, imposing measures such as a travel ban, school shutdowns, and a ban on large gatherings, even though he insisted his country has yet to encounter a single case of the disease. El Salvador is currently embroiled in an ugly dispute with Mexico after accusing the Mexican government of allowing 12 suspected coronavirus patients to board a plane from Mexico City to San Salvador. The Mexican government said this story was “absolutely false,” its airport personnel acted responsibly, and none of the 12 masked travelers tested positive for the Wuhan virus.
Fox News noted last week that the number of reported cases from Africa is suspiciously low, suggesting there could be unknown or deliberately concealed infections in some African nations. Other countries might enjoy a little temporary protection because they have very low rates of foreign travel and tourism, but the coronavirus is bound to arrive eventually.