The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to people and governments across the globe. The threat has forced governments to act in ways they could have barely imagined only a few months earlier – and at a scale and speed that was inconceivable too.

Because the situation was novel, there was no playbook and no firm evidence base to guide decision-making. As a result, governments around the world reacted in a variety of different ways in response to COVID-19. Now, as a number of countries begin to emerge from the crisis, it is becoming possible to learn what worked well and what worked less well.

This report attempts to capture those lessons by examining the actions of the twenty countries that, according to public health data, have been most effective in managing the crisis and limiting its impact. The variation in country performance is not solely a result of the actions of their governments; geography, for example, clearly plays a part.

In the past, we have both worked in senior positions in government. Since then, we have both worked with governments on every continent. We know how difficult it is to govern well, especially in a crisis of these proportions. Leaders have to make tough decisions under pressure in the full glare of publicity – and some of those decisions may not work out well. We respect and honour all those who faced up to the challenges and have worked hard to lead countries through this crisis, not just those whose approaches turned out to work best. Our intention is to enable learning, not to allocate praise or blame.

We realise we are still in an early phase of humanity’s response to the crisis and that the conclusions we reach here have to be considered provisional rather than definitive. Nevertheless, we hope summarising them at this early stage will assist those responsible for the continuing response to COVID-19, which will potentially pose a major threat to us all for some years given the timetables required to develop universally applicable vaccines. These conclusions may also assist countries in ensuring preparedness for future pandemics.

In due course, we plan to release a follow-up report looking at the economic consequences of the pandemic and what we can learn about governments’ responses to them.

Idris Jala and Michael Barber

June 2020

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