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Testing Capacity: State Capacity and COVID-19 Testing

Research output: Contribution to specialist publicationEditorial

Robyn Klingler-Vidra, Ida Uusikyla, Ba-Linh Tran

King's Authors


One of the key questions emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic is: which governments are best able to respond? Is a Chinese-style lockdown the most effective in protecting local (and by extension, global) citizens? Is it the techno-state that is more effective as it relies on extensive data collection and transparency on the whereabouts of those with the illness, as in Israel, Korea and Viet Nam? Or is the liberal government’s embrace of social trust, as in Sweden, ultimately the best approach?

For many of us, the question of whether authoritarian regimes or democracies are best equipped in responding to the pandemic will feel like a familiar conundrum. An important issue within the debate is that of safeguarding freedoms, such as civil liberties, during responses to crises also feels familiar. So even if the health and economic outcome is a positive one, as Amartya Sen would assert, if one’s rights are usurped in the process the value of the model needs to be questioned.

COVID-19 also raises issues of inequality within societies, and brings the need for more inclusive innovation to the fore, rather than support of innovation that does not account for distributive effects.

Increasingly, one of the arenas underpinning state capacity vis-à-vis the COVID pandemic is testing, as this is essential to ascertaining who in society is infected. By knowing where cases of the illness are, the spread of the pandemic can be more surgically contained and resources more efficiently distributed. Some countries have tested widely, like Germany and South Korea, and seem to, as a result, have a better handle on the spread of the virus. Other states, including the UK until recently, have instead restricted testing to only the most ill, particularly those in hospital.

Underlying national testing strategies is the associated cost, with some countries reporting that only a small percent of those tested are found to have the virus the cost-benefit analysis of each test looks bleak on a population-level basis. However, even proponents of the so-called ‘herd immunity’ strategy are now coming around to the idea that widespread testing is essential.

So, then, the questions become: how can testing be done on a reliable and affordable basis? How can testing be inclusive across wider society? If the cost calculation is too great for much of society, only those who can afford to will be tested. This is dangerous for the whole of society, but particularly for those in the most precarious economic situations.

It is in this context that we turn to one emerging economy, that has a large land border with China, the original epicentre of the outbreak: Viet Nam. The country has made headlines for responding to the outbreak efficiently, with limited resources, committed leadership and an entrepreneurial-spirited society.

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