The COVID pandemic took the world by surprise in 2020, and the world has never been the same. While vaccination efforts are on in different countries worldwide, the battle against COVID 19 is all but won. Even as humans’ adaptation to COVID 19 increased and fear of the virus decreased, the virus itself evolved into different strains. The newer strains of the COVID 19 virus pose new threats to the global health scenario. Understanding the new strain's characteristics and coming up with a new strategy to fight it is a challenging task.
The first response of countries to COVID 19
While the world is grappling with the challenge that emerging strains of COVID 19 present before us, let us look back on how the world tackled the first wave of the COVID 19 pandemic till now. The truth is, even though the pandemic is a global threat, it is handled in a segmented way in different countries. One country or region handles the COVID 19 pandemic differently than the other countries.
The response of a country to the pandemic depends highly on its population and area size, the resources at its disposal, and the government operating on it. A lot of responsibility lies with the public health department of the country. The more robust a country’s health infrastructure is, the more capable it is of tackling the pandemic. The efficiency of the COVID 19 tackling strategy, however, has many factors linked to it.
The ground reality remains that no country in the world was ever prepared to tackle a pandemic of this scale completely. Of course, scientists and researchers knew there was a possibility of such a pandemic soon. However, like all things, we do not learn to deal with problems before they stand face to face with us. The world also learned to live with COVID 19 when COVID 19 threatened the world order. The question is, now that we have learned to live amid the constant fear of contracting COVID 19, is the world doing enough to eradicate the COVID 19 virus?
The disproportionate graph of COVID 19 control
The effort to create an immunized population against COVID 19 and controlling the virus spread has progressed haphazardly across the globe. While countries like New Zealand are highly successful in minimizing the threat of COVID 19 for the population, countries like the US, Italy, and Spain have failed at keeping the COVID 19 virus in check. US is grappling with the brutal reality of losing millions of lives to the COVID 19 pandemic. The global economic epicenter is today the epicenter of the pandemic. UK and parts of Europe are struggling against a new strain of the virus.
The curious case of Western countries
When we observe the countries with the most number of confirmed COVID 19 cases, the western countries dominate the list. For a long time, the West is seen as a sign of advanced scientific knowledge, economic and social prowess. Where western countries had the reputation of being superior powers to most Asian countries, the COVID 19 pandemic was their litmus test. So, why did the West fail to control and suppress the COVID 19 pandemic compared to Asia? How did the Asian countries emerge out of the pandemic?
This article focuses on how Asia as a continent tackled the pandemic. The article will also discuss the failures of Western countries at the peak of the pandemic. By the end of the article, it will be easy to understand why Asian countries have an advantage over the West in the public health sector.
Why is Asia better at controlling the pandemic?
Asian countries like China, Japan, and Korea have successfully controlled the COVID 19 pandemic. China especially received a lot of backlash for being the country of origin for the COVID 19 pandemic. Countries around the world believe that the world won’t be in this situation if it was not for China.
However, China was also one of the first countries to rapidly suppress the pandemic. Japan was also successful in controlling infection rates and deaths. These countries’ success is largely credited to the mindset of Asian people towards government rules. Asians are more likely to adhere to strict COVID 19 regulations.
Asians like Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans are also more accepting of COVID 19 surveillance by the government. On the other hand, the citizens of western countries failed to adapt rapidly to the lifestyle changes needed as precautions against the COVID 19 virus.
For example, the USA is still struggling to convince people to use masks everywhere. The USA has even witnessed protests against masks and lockdowns. Asian countries like Japan and Hong Kong already used masks to prevent infections. These countries, therefore, were better prepared to follow COVID 19 mask and hygiene rules.
Countries in Asia were more intense with their COVID 19 surveillance as opposed to their western counterparts. Western populations saw surveillance as a breach of their and rights.
Another notable fact is that Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia had already faced the SARS and MERS epidemic. The experience gathered from the previous epidemic came in handy during this pandemic. Apart from better compliance to government rules and acceptance of surveillance, here are the few reasons why Asia fared better in comparison.
Large Scale Testing Strategy
In fact, the starting point of treatment and prevention is testing for the disease. Because Asian countries tend to have large populations and complex communities, most Asian countries were prepared to execute large-scale testing strategies. Again, the experience gathered from recent epidemics helped in crafting a rapid response to COVID 19.
Surveillance coupled with a large-scale testing strategy helped detect the virus in different sections of the population. For example, Korea has conducted the most number of COVID 19 tests in the world. The detection strategy worked and enabled the government to treat patients before infection rates touched the roof. Like Korea, other Asian countries also launched large-scale public testing campaigns and shut down the infection rates.
Contact tracing is also crucial to controlling the spread of COVID 19 in Asian countries. As people in Asian countries live in close-knit families and interdependent communities, infection through contact is a factor in rising infections. To reduce infection rates, Asian governments created apps and networks for contact tracing.
Countries like Korea, China, Singapore, and Japan used contact tracing for finding possible secondary infections. Contact tracing helped in breaking the chain of infection for Asian communities. Through contact tracing, quarantine and treatment, governments decreased the scope of community transmission.
The circulation of personal protective equipment
The use of personal protective equipment is a necessary detail in the COVID 19 prevention strategy. While westerners protested against using masks, Asians took to using PPEs. Using PPEs in industrial and medical settings helped Asia run its economy despite the present threat of COVID 19. The vast workforce of Asian countries kept the supply of PPE kits uninterrupted. The circulation and use of PPE kits in Asia also had a huge role in controlling the COVID 19 infection rate. Asian governments advised public establishments to stockpile PPE kits for use.
The border surveillance is strict
The immigration mechanism in the country plays a major role in deciding the direction of the national COVID 19 strategy. Without proper border surveillance strategy and the use of strict immigration controls, incoming infected visitors can topple a COVID 19 strategy.
Asian countries were not only better at monitoring the health and movement of the national population but also monitoring the health standard of incoming visitors. While some Asian countries totally sealed the borders, others did not allow tourists into the country without COVID 19 tests, registration, and a 14 day quarantine period for any possible symptoms. Many Asian countries like India saw the border shutdown as an opportunity to become more self-reliant. The COVID 19 pandemic thus, made Asian countries stronger.
Now that we have a broad view of why COVID 19 posed less of a threat in Asia let us consider a case study of the COVID 19 combat strategy by taking the example of Singapore.
The tiny but tenacious Singapore
After combatting the SARS virus in 2003, the Singapore government took its lessons in epidemiology and prepared itself for the next outbreak. The National Centre of Infectious Diseases in Singapore acted as the epicenter of national action against the pandemic. Nevertheless, Singapore prepared well before the 2020 pandemic struck. Although it is a small country, its hospitals have enough bed capacity to support incoming COVID patients.
Singapore also built its national health infrastructure by creating a well-trained health workforce. Singaporean doctors trained at the WHO and in the USA in the past. The modern, experienced public health workforce handled the pandemic with expertise. National healthcare exercises, ones designed to handle situations like a pandemic, also prepared the health force for any emergency situation.
In addition to this, Singapore also took up the strategy of contact tracing to find out infection cases. In short, even though Singapore was one of the first countries to face COVID 19 at the home turf, it managed the situation with prepared, measurable steps.
Singapore is popular for its good governance and targeted approach. In fact, during the first wave, Singapore formed a joint task force for COVID 19 combat. This joint task force included the ministers of all major ministries so that decisive and holistic action was possible against the virus.
Singapore was on its guard even before the first case of COVID 19 emerged in the country. This caution is also reflected in other Asian countries. The caution and preparedness shown by Asian countries saved millions of lives on the continent.
The contact tracing mechanism in Singapore was effective in detecting most cases in their mild, asymptomatic form. Singapore government also rapidly activated social isolation facilities for the infected and frontline workers so that infection rates decreased exponentially.
The Singapore government also announced that all the expenses of COVID 19 detection and treatment would be borne by the government.
While western countries struggled with the economic impact of the pandemic, Singapore announced that it would provide s$100 to quarantined people per day. In this way, Singapore addressed all sections of its combat strategy and even decreased the chances of economic and political backlash from the pandemic. As an example of the strict COVID 19 prevention regime in Asia, Singapore revoked the permanent residency of a citizen for disobeying a stay-at-home notice and barred him from entering the country permanently.
The strict but wholesome COVID 19 combat strategy is an example of strategies in Asian countries. Asian countries touched on detection, treatment, prevention, economic recovery, and isolation to control the outbreak. This multi-channel strategy was the most effective in achieving its objectives.
The Success of Vietnam in controlling COVID 19
Even before western countries started realizing the scale of the threat that the COVID 19 virus posed, Vietnam was on its guard. The prompt action from the Vietnamese government and public came from their previous experience with handling epidemics. Vietnam started border surveillance right after the first reports of COVID 19 in China surfaced. This precaution, even before the first case of COVID 19 in Vietnam, helped in keeping the numbers down. When the virus was found in the country, the government was fast to quarantine people. Testing was done even before the first case surfaced. Testing speed increased with time and was crucial in keeping the virus at bay. The government held meetings with the WHO and the CDC even before other countries started grasping at the threat. The government also carried out contact tracing with the help of its health workers and citizens. Vietnam government launched an app NCOVI to carry out contact tracing. The launch of a nationwide awareness campaign against COVID 19 helped in spreading the word regarding COVID 19. Additionally, the launch of a fundraising campaign for supplying PPE kits to frontline workers increased public solidarity behind the cause of COVID 19 eradication.
The outlook of the Vietnamese government towards the pandemic was a major reason behind its success. The cautionary and fast approach taken by the government had helped control the pandemic even before it went out of hand.
The West’s failures
The western countries’ failure in controlling the pandemic stems from the mentality that the population needs to develop herd immunity through vaccination or infection. The Asian countries, however, believed that the only way to tackle the disease was reducing the window for viral transmission. People in Asia saw social isolation and lockdowns as transient losses to the path of COVID 19 eradication.
Besides this, the initial ignorance and bewilderment the western governments showed also drove their failure to control the pandemic. Western countries like the USA and UK passed off the COVID 19 virus as another SARS or MERS at first.
As the situation deepened, western countries, led by the USA, started playing the blame game with China. The government of USA misled its citizens regarding the situation at hand. This bore a stark contrast from the approach Asian countries took. Asian countries took a cautious, informed, and strict approach to the pandemic, even before it worsened.
Western countries, on the other hand, lacked experience and remained preoccupied with other national issues. This allowed the pandemic to infect millions, kill thousands and bring down the western economy. The deluded, half-baked approach of the western countries resulted in the low success rate at fighting COVID 19.
In the end, one has to admit that the Asian countries are more than capable of handling any global emergency. Asian countries even go a step further to take exemplary action during global crises, including for western countries to follow.