The objective of this collection of essays is to gain insights into the different national-level state responses to COVID-19 around the world and the conditions that shaped them. The pandemic offers a natural experiment wherein the policy problem governments faced was the same but the responses they made were different, creating opportunities for comparison of both the kinds of policy tools being used and the factors that accounted for their choice. Accordingly, after surveying on-line databases of policy tools used in the pandemic and subjecting these to topic modelling to reveal the characteristics of a ‘standard’ national pandemic response, we discuss the similarities and differences found in specific responses. This is done with reference to the nature and level of policy capacity of respective governments, highlighting the critical roles played by (in)adequate preparation and lesson-drawing from past experiences with similar outbreaks or crises. Taken together the articles show how the national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic were shaped by the opportunity and capacity each government had to learn from previous pandemics and their capacity to operationalize and build political support for the standard portfolio of policy measures deployed to deal with the crisis. However, they also show how other factors such as the nature of national leadership, the organization of government and civil society, and blind spots towards the vulnerabilities of certain population segments also helped to shape policy responses to the pandemic.