Scientists Worked Out the Best Island Nations to Survive a Global Pandemic in a Study Last Year

In September last year, just three months before the first cases of coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China, scientists published a study looking at which island nations were best placed to survive a global pandemic and repopulate the world after.

The research, published in Risk Analysis, was a "conceptual article" by New Zealand-based scientists Matt Boyd, research director at Adapt Research, and Nick Wilson, from the University of Otago. In it, they created a scoring system that assessed how safe an island would be if a pandemic emerged. This included what resources the island offered, how accessible it is, its population and society.

"Though carriers of disease can easily circumvent land borders, a closed self-sufficient island could harbor an isolated, technologically-adept population that could repopulate the earth following a disaster," Wilson said in a statement at the time.

Their findings showed Australia was the best place to be because of its oversupply of food and energy sources. This was followed by New Zealand and Iceland. After that came Malta, Japan, Cape Verde, Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Madagascar and Mauritius.

Discussing their research in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared a pandemic, Boyd said they could not have predicted the emergence of coronavirus: "However the probability of this kind of event has more than likely been rising in conjunction with globalization, urban intensification, deforestation and exposure of human populations to more animals and novel diseases."

He continued: "Although probably not relevant in the case of COVID-19, advances in bioengineering are another factor increasing the probability of a serious pandemic. So we didn't know, but a lot of research has described the likelihood that this would happen."

The same month Boyd and Wilson's study was published, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), which is co-convened by the WHO and the World Bank Group, looked at whether the world was prepared for global diseases. It found we were at "acute risk" of epidemics or pandemics. The report said there were seven urgent actions required from world leaders to prepare the world for a pandemic. In its executive summary, the authors said many of the recommendations it reviewed "were poorly implemented, or not implemented at all." It continued: "For too long, we have allowed a cycle of panic and neglect when it comes to pandemics: we ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget about them when the threat subsides. It is well past time to act."

Boyd said they first developed the idea of an assessment of island nations because while the risk of events that could cause the collapse of civilization is low in any given year "the impacts of such events are so huge that it is rational to invest some resources in mitigating [it]."

He explained: "One long-standing idea for mitigating catastrophic impact is the idea of a refuge—think nuclear fall-out shelters in the Cold War—and we considered islands as possible refuges against pandemic and bio-weapon threats. We wanted to see which island(s) would be most suited to being used as a refuge. The most likely candidate would need to be designated as a refuge ahead of time, so that extreme border controls—total closure—could be effected near the start of the event."

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An evacuation flight from Wuhan landing in New Zealand in February. In a study last year, researchers found Australia, New Zealand and Iceland would be the best island nations for surviving a global pandemic. Dean Purcell-Pool/Getty Images

As of January 12, Australia has had 126 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with three deaths. New Zealand has had five cases, while Iceland has 85. Boyd said it is probably easier for island nations to enact border control measures because people arrive via ports or airports. However, he said he believes the reaction to COVID-19 "appears to have been too little too late in many cases."

"A show of hands at a pandemic exercise we attended on February 11 indicated this was likely to become a global pandemic," he said. "Yet many nations have done very little in the intervening month. Research indicates that a swift and substantial response can limit the spread of these things, but a delay of even a week or two can mean that it gets away from us. Which it has.

"Once global, the reluctance of many nations to impose economically harmful but epidemiologically appropriate measures is disappointing. My personal view is that in attempting to save face or preserve markets, many decision-makers have made this much worse."

Boyd believes the data from this pandemic will eventually help scientists to refine simulation models of disease outbreaks, which could help to better understand which islands are going to be least impacted. This, he said, could help with future planning of refuges. However, he added that rather than trying to work out where would be safest during a pandemic, the information should be used to identify the systems that need to be improved "so that anything more deadly can be managed more quickly and effectively at the source, before it becomes a pandemic."

According to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker, there have been 126,660 confirmed cases globally. This includes 4,641 deaths and 68,305 recovered. The way many governments and organizations have responded to the outbreak has been criticized. In Italy, which has had almost 12,500 cases, the ambassador to the European Union recently said the EU had not done enough to curb the spread of the virus.

In the U.S., experts say a "broken" testing system for coronavirus may have allowed it to spread. Discussing the attempts to expand testing, Ranu S. Dhillon, from Harvard Medical School, told Newsweek at the time: "The measures being taken are incremental when we are already behind in this epidemic and the steps [need to be] much more aggressive... We are so behind the ball—this epidemic has likely been expanding silently and off-the-radar for some time."

Statista Map Coronavirus March 12, 2020
A chart showing the areas affected by COVID-19 across the world as of March 12 at 6 a.m.