Lessons from the pandemic


Asian models that actually combated Covid-19

Globally nations are convinced that washing hands with soap, wearing a mask, maintaining social distance, and staying home are prime health safety tips to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The scenario in Taiwan, however, is similar but strikingly different from most countries in Asia, Africa, America, and Europe struggling to combat the Covid-19 crisis.

In a new coronavirus twist, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, and Hong Kong are examples of containment that have been hailed for using those lessons learned from combating the new coronavirus, officially Covid-19 and a relative of SARS.

By the time the virus began to spill over China’s frontiers in January, many health think-tanks believed that territories having proximity would take the major brunt for a large-scale outbreak.

Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong territories are closely interconnected with mainland China, unilaterally imposed travel restrictions on nationals returning from China, contravening the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) insistence that a travel ban was not necessary.

The precaution, nevertheless, came at a significant economic cost to these international hubs, which all rely on mainland China as their biggest trading partner and source of tourists too.

Amid these grim trends, South Korea has emerged as a sign of hope and a model to imitate as coronavirus cases have dropped sharply to a single digit. 

The South Korean president hoped that containment progress gave hope that the coronavirus outbreak is “surmountable” in other parts of the world.

Well, after after the deadly SARS epidemic in 2003, Taiwan established a Central Command Centre for Epidemics. The country had introduced national drills in educational institutions, government establishments, and factories for preparedness on bio-safety.

The Command Centre has quickly compiled a list of 124 “action items,” including border controls, school and work policies, public communication plans and resource assessments of hospitals, according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The 210 countries typically struggling with the coronavirus pandemic have gambled on a containment strategy. It has socked hundreds of countries that have imposed strict shutdowns and stay-home policies to hear that Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Vietnam residents venture outside only by necessity while national emergency remains enforced.

Unlike wealthier Asian neigbours, Vietnam does not have the capabilities to conduct mass testing, but surprisingly the country has zero fatalities with no new cases in the last several days. The status of coronavirus cases was 268 and 202 recovered as of April 20.

Hong Kong, an autonomous state of China promptly imposed border control from early February and made quarantine in hospitals mandatory for those returning from mainland China.

Hong Kong’s population of 7.5 million had had just 1,026 confirmed cases of Covid-19 infection, recovery of 602 and four deaths as of April 20, according to a new study published in the health journal Lancet.

A study by Harvard University’s Centre for Communicable Disease Dynamics estimates Singapore detected almost three times more cases than the global average due to its strong disease surveillance and fastidious contact tracing.

In Singapore, amid the coronavirus outbreak, quarantine, and isolation protocols were strictly enforced. 

The government has deployed plainclothes police officers to track persons in quarantine and used government-issued mobile phones to keep tabs on them.

The challenges remain for Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore of a growing number of recovered Covid-19 patients relapsing especially in South Korea, raising fresh concerns among scientists and health authorities after the countries successfully flattened the curve. 

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellow (USA) and Hellman-Hammett Award. Twitter @saleemsamad; he can be reached at [email protected]