The examples of these nations—all in the Asia-Pacific region—offer some much-needed hope and a way out of our current predicament.
The first country outside China to experience a substantial Covid-19 outbreak, South Korea avoided the fate of Italy and the United States for a number of reasons. The nation has emerged as a poster child for mass testing, most clearly seen in the photos and videos of drive-through facilities broadcast around the world. Over 560,000 tests have been done so far, with fees for both Covid-19 testing and treatment covered by the government. Technology was efficiently used to map the virus’s spread, with a smartphone app showing the movements of those infected before they were tested on a real-time map, informing the general public of places to avoid. South Korea is now hailed as a model for other liberal democracies as it has successfully curbed the spread of the virus without locking down entire cities and restricting movement. Parliamentary elections held last week saw a record turnout, with social distancing measures in place to make sure the occasion did not cause a second wave of infections. On Sunday, the daily count of newly confirmed cases fell to single digits for the first time in two months.
Anyone who lives in Taiwan can take comfort in vice-president Chen Chien-jen’s background as a trained epidemiologist and the fact that their home is the best-prepared country in Asia, if not the world, when it comes to disease control. The country learned from the painful experience of the SARS outbreak by setting up a National Health Command Center one year later, and quickly implemented its epidemic response plan once reports emerged of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan. Taiwan soon integrated its national health insurance database with immigration and customs information, using big data to track potential cases, providing doctors with crucial information on travel history while making sure returning citizens and residents do not break their 14-day quarantine. It has so far managed to keep infection rates remarkably low despite close economic links with mainland China and political isolation on the world stage (Taiwan continues to be shut out from the WHO). Schools and businesses across Taiwan remain open as community transmission has been virtually eliminated.
A notable entry on this list, Vietnam hasn’t attracted much attention in the international media despite its success at fighting Covid-19 with fewer resources at its disposal. Since Vietnam possesses a weaker healthcare system and lacks both the budget and capability for widespread testing on the scale of South Korea, its government has relied on strict quarantine measures and aggressive contact tracing, the latter of which kicked in even similar measures were taken in China. Vietnam’s preventative efforts began as far back as late January, when it was believed that the virus was largely confined to its northerly neighbor. Another contributing factor is the fact that the government uses widespread public surveillance to prevent people from flouting lockdown regulations. As of April 20, the number of confirmed infections has plateaued at 268; no new cases have been recorded in the past three days, and more than 75 percent of Covid-19 patients have already recovered.
This country has been lauded for its response under the decisive leadership of prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who imposed a strict country-wide community lockdown starting on March 26. In contrast to the mitigating strategy employed by most other countries, there is a firm focus on elimination, which means stamping out the virus entirely within New Zealand’s borders. The month-long national home quarantine showed encouraging results by Easter Sunday, when the number of newly confirmed infections had dropped almost 90 percent from the peak in late March. Only nine new cases have been recorded on April 20, and Ardern has just announced that restrictions will be eased starting next week, with early learning centers and schools reopening, along with shops and factories deemed “Covid safe.” Parks and beaches will finally be open for exercise so long as people keep two meters apart.
Though the Australian federal government was criticized for initially being slow to act as the virus spread across the globe, it ramped up its response in the second half of March with a slew of public health measures: closing the national borders to non-citizens and residents, banning overseas travel for Australians, expanding testing, implementing mandatory isolation in hotels for travelers, and then limiting all gatherings to just two people. These moves—in concert with stay-at-home orders and other social distancing efforts rolled out by individual state governments—have had the effect of preventing widespread community transmission. Federal health minister Greg Hunt announced yesterday that the rate of increase in new cases had fallen below one percent for seven days running.