The Best Countries for Social Distancing and Remote Work During COVID-19

The Best Countries for Social Distancing During COVID-19

By Rob Binns | Senior Writer | Updated: 27 March 2020

Social distancing. As the world writhes in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been cited again and again – along with hand washing, of course – as the public’s best defence against contracting and spreading the deadly coronavirus. 

So what does it actually mean? Well, social distancing measures include staying home, avoiding large gatherings, and refraining from touching others – fist pumps are out, elbows are in, and traditional handshakes have been replaced by the Wuhan variety. People all over the world have been told to work from home, and – when allowed out for essentials – they must remain at least two metres from one another.

Covid 19 spelled out with wooden blocks

It’s gotten so bad that most of Western Europe has clamped down, enforcing increasingly draconian measures to keep people indoors. Yet – in the UK, at least – people are still ignoring the advice. Similar circumstances have been seen in the furbizia of Italian citizens, and the Parisians’ flouting of the French capital’s strict lockdown laws en masse. Which begs the question…

How good are we all at social distancing? More pertinently, are certain countries better set up for success in minimising the ravages of COVID-19 through effective self-isolation?

Let’s take a look at what the data says.


Our research

We wanted to find out which of the world’s citizens are best-placed to work from home during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. To do this, for each country, we’ve examined nine of the most useful metrics for exploring the comfort, speed, and overall effectiveness of the average white collar remote worker:

  1. Number of internet users, relative to population
  2. Broadband download speed
  3. Contactless mobile wallet payments at the point of sale
  4. Number of households with a computer
  5. Social media usage
  6. E-government development
  7. Intelligent connectivity
  8. Mobile download speed

Sources: 1, 2 & 8, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

We ranked the world’s countries across each of these nine metrics to come up with a total aggregated score for each. The higher the score, we reasoned, the better-equipped the country is for social distancing success… and, therefore, the better it’d be at slowing the spread of the virus.

So which countries came out on top?

RankingCountryIndex score
1South Korea6.7
2Denmark6.5
3Sweden6.2
4Singapore6.1
5Norway5.7
6Netherlands5.6
7UK5.4
8USA5.3
9Switzerland5.1
10Canada5.0
11Australia4.7
12New Zealand4.3
13Japan4.0
14China3.4
15Germany3.2

The top five: unpacked

With huge smartphone penetration, high internet usage, and a particularly prominent penchant for social media, South Korea tops our list. Denmark is next, and is joined by two of its closest comrades – Sweden and Norway – in the top five.

Like Scandinavia, East Asian countries fared well – and it’s Singapore that rounds out our top five countries for social distancing during a pandemic. Let’s take a closer look at these countries… and why they might just be some of the best places to hole up, hunker down, and work from home during COVID-19.

South Korea flag

South Korea

  • Has the highest social media usage
  • 95% of South Koreans regularly access the internet…
  • And almost 9 in 10 of them own a smartphone

South Korea. One of the hardest-hit countries in the early devastations of COVID-19, its denizens can at least take solace in their smartphones. More than 87% of South Koreans own one, while basically all of them utilise the internet.

It’s no surprise, then, that South Korea’s social media usage is the highest in the world. As well as the usual suspects (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter), South Korea sports a vast array of its own local social media platforms. So – even if its citizens must continue to stay at home indefinitely – social media, at least, will ensure that the distancing remains only geographical.

South Korea also ranks third in the world for e-government services, second for broadband download speed, and first for mobile download speeds. This potent combination has allowed South Korean authorities to succeed with a ‘self-health check’ mobile app, empowering those entering the country to monitor any potential symptoms of the virus.

Denmark flag

Denmark

  • Boasts the best levels of internet access
  • Has a near perfect score for e-government development, which takes in online services, human capital, and telecommunications infrastructure
  • 88% of Danish citizens interact digitally with public authorities

Denmark’s excellent levels of internet usage, computer penetration, and hygge propelled it to number two on our list of the best countries for social distancing. 

Similar to the rest of Scandinavia, the last 20 years have seen Denmark’s public sector undergo a rapid push towards digitisation. This, combined with the Danes’ already elevated levels of trust in public authorities, makes communication during COVID-19 a speedier, safer, and more effective proposition – particularly when 88% Denmark’s people already interact digitally with the government.

And why wouldn’t they, when their country dominates the rankings for e-government development? With top telecommunications infrastructure, high human capital, and on point online services, there aren’t many better places to hole up during a pandemic.

Sweden flag

Sweden

  • Ranked highest for digital evolution
  • This includes supply and demand conditions, as well as innovation and change
  • Swedish businesses reacted quickest to quell the onset of the coronavirus

Not to be outdone by its next-door Nordic neighbour, Sweden topped our rankings for digital evolution. This metric takes into account the growth rate of a country’s digitisation, and is based on supply conditions, demand conditions, institutional environment, and innovation and change – and Sweden bosses it.

Sweden’s always provided a nurturing home for startups, and its corporate stars were characteristically ahead of the curve when it came to COVID-19. Big names including IKEA and Spotify reacted swiftly to the virus’ spread, closing their offices and initiating remote working procedures even before anything official was announced. Great spot!

Singapore flag

Singapore

  • Scored higher than any other country for broadband speed
  • Ranked well across all data points
  • One of the first to use a mobile app to combat COVID-19

Singapore’s quick internet and mobile download speeds (plus its impressive e-governmental development scores) haven’t just made it a haven for working-from-home wizards. It’s also helped authorities and citizens join forces in using tech to combat COVID-19. 

How? With an app, of course. TraceTogether allows local authorities to use wireless Bluetooth technology to track people who’ve been exposed to those with the coronavirus, helping medical teams to react quicker to new cases.

Norway flag

Norway

  • Almost 97% of the population uses the internet
  • Over 95% of households have a computer
  • Tied with Sweden as the most digitally evolved country

More commonly known for fjords and expensive beer, Norway has a few more feathers in its cap. Alongside Sweden, it boasts the highest ratings for digital evolution, and 19 out of every 20 households have computers. On top of this, almost all Norwegians access the internet on a regular basis.

To be honest, there was barely a metric that Norway didn’t excel in. If it was let down by anything, it’d be its lower e-government development score, which saw it sink below Scandinavian rivals Denmark and Sweden in our index.

Still, with fast internet, good mobile wallet penetration, and the Northern Lights on your doorstep, it’s certainly not the worst place to be stuck during an outbreak!


…The rest

How do the remaining ten countries in our top 15 stack up?

6-10

Claiming the next five places is a predominantly European contingent, with the Netherlands, the UK, and Switzerland being joined by the US and Canada. 

As it turns out, the Dutch are pretty well-equipped to work from home, with almost 98% of households owning a computer. Switzerland and Canada achieved average scores across the board, while here in the UK our folks have a bit of a mixed bag.

While Britain’s percentage of internet users, e-government development, and computer penetration are all good, we’re let down by – wait for it – the second worst broadband and mobile internet speeds on the list (it’s the Aussies that take that unwanted plaudit). Still… wifi in the UK is slooooow.

Want the proof? A mere fortnight into the more serious anti-COVID-19 measures, and our broadband is already floundering.

That said, it’s not all bad for Britain. We do, after all, have magnificent e-government development scores. Take the MyGP app, for instance – which recently updated its remote consultations section to streamline COVID-19 diagnoses – or NHS software provider AccurX, which has added video consultation to its services. 

USA flag

Spotlight on: USA (8th on our list)

  • Ranked highest for intelligent connectivity
  • This metric is based on ICT (information and communications technology) investment, ICT maturity, and economic performance in broadband, cloud, IoT (Internet of Things), and AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology
  • Scored poorly for percentage of internet users relative to population (75%)

Ah, the United States. The Land of the Free – at least, until state orders instructing over half of its population to stay at home came into effect this week. Luckily, the US population has the tools and technology in place to successfully self-isolate, and work from home with ease.

The USA’s investment in the growth and performance of broadband and cloud technology is empowering its workers to keep the communication lines open, and pave the way for real-time collaboration through the internet. 

After all, most businesses are powered by some form of cloud technology – whether it’s CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software, payroll, or a communication tool such as Slack or Google Hangouts

However, the US was let down by its internet usage, with only three quarters of the country using the worldwide web. Though, as more and more states order citizens to stay home without much to do, we’d be surprised if this number doesn’t start to accelerate!

11-15

Further down our list, it’s a trip down under, where New Zealand and Australia’s strong social media usage and e-government development should see them through these dark times. They’re joined by Japan and Germany in our 13th and 15th positions, while in 14th place, it’s the country where it all began…

China flag

Spotlight on: China (14th on our list)

  • Lowest number of internet users on our list
  • Highest mobile wallet usage (by far) at the point of sale
  • High contactless cap encourages more hygienic, cashless spending

China’s story is a tale of two halves. On the one hand, its citizens’ efforts to work remotely and effectively socially distance were stymied by the worst levels of internet access on the list – just under 59% of Chinese people have accessed the internet in the last year

Away from the confines of the (home) office, though, China excels – particularly when it comes to making purchases in stores. China’s contactless usage was unprecedented, with a whopping 36% of transactions at the point of sale being made with mobile wallets

Experts around the world have already pointed the finger at banknotes as a major culprit in the spread of the notoriously contagious virus. So, China’s propensity to favour a completely hands-free way of paying should help its citizens to social distance effectively. 

Plus, at CN¥1000 (over £100), China has one of the highest contactless spend limits in the world. That means Chinese consumers can buy more, without reaching a cap at which they have to handle a well-thumbed card machine and enter a PIN code. 

For context, this is something we’re desperately trying to replicate here in the UK – our own contactless limit was increased by 50% just days ago!


Our methodology and metrics: explained

Methodology

Our index was created to measure how countries stack up when it comes to the factors that contribute to a digitally advanced society. These countries are more well-equipped to work from home; and their citizens, therefore, have a better chance of successfully social distancing.

These are the nine metrics mentioned above, and countries were only chosen if data was available for seven of the nine sources we used (Sorry Finland, Iceland, and Hong Kong; we tried). 

In order to be able to accurately quantify how digitally-equipped a country is, we awarded each one a score from 1-10, on each metric. The higher the score, the better a country’s capability in that specific area. 

We obtained a score for each metric from the raw data, via this formula:

Score(i) = 10 * ( ( (x(i) – x(min) ) / ( (x(max) – x(min) ) )

Final scores (the ones you see in the table up at the top) were calculated from the total sum of the points awarded for each category, divided by the number of datasets that we had for them.

Metrics

The nine metrics were chosen because we felt they represented the most accurate, overall reflection of how able a country's citizens are to work from home, connect with one another remotely, and buy essentials without too much contact. We figured that people who are more empowered to do these things will be more successful at social distancing.

Basically, these countries are the best ones to ride out the current COVID-19 pandemic in.

To further narrow down our nine metrics, we sorted them into five categories:

Internet capabilities

This includes:

  • Number of users of the internet
  • Broadband download speed
  • Percentage of households with a computer

Why is this important?

The distribution of decent internet (and functioning computers) across a country is instrumental to the effectiveness of home-working. Anyone who’s ever had to struggle through a video meeting with slow internet – or fill out a spreadsheet without a computer – will know exactly what we mean.

Digital infrastructure

This includes:

  • Digital evolution
  • Intelligent connectivity

Why is this important?

Endava defines digital evolution as a country’s:

“[I]ntentional choice to rapidly accelerate its organisational rate of digital adoption and change, through the simultaneous creation, renovation, and marshalling of digital products, alongside the creation, flexible reinforcement, and agile maturation of their platforms and infrastructure.”

Essentially, it refers to how committed a country is to going digital

Intelligent connectivity, in this context, is a country’s commitment to investing in, and making available, technology that facilitates human communication.

Without a more digitised, cloud-based approach to connecting people, a country’s population will struggle to work remotely – just look at the current mad scramble for cloud services for all the evidence you need of this!

Digital communication

This includes:

  • Social media
  • Mobile download speed

Why is this important?

The importance of social media in maintaining virtual (if not physical) human contact in pandemic times simply can’t be overstated. Instagram, TikTok, and Zoom are but a handful of the big platforms to have benefited since real-life social events began slipping off the calendar.

Why does it matter? Well, the more access a country’s citizens have to social media, the less need they’ll have to defy government warnings against gathering in public. Thus, they’ll be better at social distancing, and more effective when it comes to working from home.

Public services

This includes:

  • E-government development

Why is this important?

E-government development relates to the effectiveness of a country’s online services, plus its telecommunications infrastructure. 

It matters, because how well a country’s existing processes are equipped to handle communication and coordination during a crisis will affect its citizens’ ability to concentrate on work, and maintain a commitment to social distancing practices.

Contactless payments

This includes:

  • Mobile wallet penetration

Why is this important?

Supermarkets are basically some of the only shops left on the street – and, COVID-19 or no COVID-19, buying food will always be a necessity.

Yet banknotes are a proven conductor for the virus, and consumers will always require a quick, seamless experience at the checkout. The availability of contactless-equipped terminals, penetration of mobile wallets, and ability to spend more with contactless will always be huge factors during a pandemic.


Conclusion

We are in truly unprecedented times. COVID-19 has swept the earth, sending the world’s countries into panic and its economies into recession. Governments are responding by enforcing oppressive lockdown measures, and businesses by sending their employees home – with a paycheck, or without one.

People all over the world are faring differently. So how does your country stack up?

As we’ve seen, the data suggests that South Korea should be the country most capable of weathering a lengthy spell of remote work and social distancing. Denmark, Sweden, Singapore, and Norway also all possess the infrastructure and technology in place to ride out the devastating storm that is COVID-19.

To what extent our research will bear out in real life, though, we can’t say. How well a country reacts depends on when it gets hit, where it is, and the customs of a nation’s people and culture… not to mention the scope and accuracy of reporting on the pandemic.

What we can say is this – with almost half a million recorded cases (at the time of writing), COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere soon… and neither is remote working. And everyone, whether you’re in Swansea or Switzerland (and regardless of the speed of your broadband!), has a responsibility to stay home, and follow government advice about social distancing.

That’s all from us. Tweet @robdbinns to chat. Alternatively, send us an email at rob.binns@expertmarket.co.uk if you have any questions about the data, or our approach to it.

But most of all, stay safe.

Rob Binns Expert Market
Rob Binns Senior Writer

Rob writes mainly about the payments industry, but also brings to the table industry-specific knowledge of CRM software, business loans, fulfilment, and invoice finance. When not exasperating his editor with bad puns, he can be found relaxing in a sunny (socially-distanced) corner, with a beer and a battered copy of Dostoevsky.

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