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Asia coronavirus responses by hook or by crook

Asia coronavirus: Reactions differ
Chengdu, China: People checking their body temperature.

Almost all Asian states have now closed schools and restricted opening hours of public spaces, like restaurants, bars and malls. Most have imposed travel bans on visitors from China and Europe.

Many have announced stimulus packages to defer the economic costs for businesses and workers, while pumping more money into their healthcare services.

Yet Asian governments’ recipes for dealing with COVID-19 could not be more different.

Asia coronavirus successes

After weeks of hiding the virus outbreak, China put most of Hubei province, of almost 60 million people, on lockdown on January 23 and only now are schools and public spaces beginning to reopen and people leaving their homes.

From the get-go, South Korea responded well, leading the way in “treat early” measures and high levels of testing. Indeed, test rates are much higher in South Korea – 3,692 tests per million people as of March 8 – than most other countries in the world. Italy has only tested 826 people per million, even though its mortality rates were ten times higher than in South Korea, for instance.

Since mid-February South Korea has tested roughly 15,000 people per day, while Japan only tests 6,000. Overall, South Korea has tested more ten times as many people (210,000) as Japan since mid-February.

South Korea also pioneered innovative ways of testing, such as with drive-thru inspections, which has proved not only quicker but also safer, as potential infected people do not come into contact with others in hospitals or clinics, thereby lowering cross-infection.

Japan, meanwhile, has been more conservative, sticking closely to World Health Organization’s guidelines. People who suspect they are infected must call ahead to stations set up by the Health Ministry to see if they can be tested, and that is only possible if they display symptoms for more than four days – or two days for the elderly.

In China, South Korea and Japan, the numbers of new COVID-19 cases are now declining, though some fear they could spike again in the coming weeks.

Southeast Asia needs “aggressive measures”

The response of Southeast Asian states has been even more varied, a considerable problem as that the World Health Organization, on March 18, called on the region to scale up “aggressive measures.”

The Philippines, where the number of confirmed cases rose from ten to 187 between March 10 and March 17, only introduced effective quarantine measures in Manila, the capital, this week, which resulted in chaotic scenes. Luzon, its most populous island, has also been put on lockdown. This week, it also became the first country in the world to close its financial markets.

Malaysia saw its number of confirmed coronavirus cases spike to 553 on March 16, after weeks of only double-digit infections. Late to respond, its government introduced sweeping restrictions on March 18, including a ban on all foreign travel.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest country, with a population of 264 million, only this week carried out more than 1,000 tests for infections, after not recording one case up until March 2, something international health bodies raised doubts about. As of March 17, there are now 172 cases of the disease.

Vietnam and Singapore, by comparison, responded quickly in January by banning all transport of people from China, while Vietnam has more recently responded to the outbreak in Europe by immediately stopping all visitors from Europe.

Singapore, along with fellow city-state Hong Kong, has only recorded a handful of deaths thanks to quick and innovative responses. Early on, its authorities quickly ordered a quarantine of suspected infected people, and now regularly update an online database of potential cases, including details of where they live and work, allowing other people to be more cautious in such places.

Asia coronavirus: Transparency varies significantly from country to country

Responses across Asia have also varied in how transparent their governments have been with their citizens.

Authorities in China knew about the virus either in late November or early December, but said nothing publicly until January. They have since instigated major crackdowns on whistle-blowers and critics of its ruling Communist Party.

The communist-run government in Laos, which borders China and it’s the second-poorest in Southeast Asia, still claims there are no infections in the country, which many international health experts doubt.

The Cambodian government, which is China’s closely ally in Asia, responded cavalierly in the first few months, with its prime minister, Hun Sen, regularly travelling the country without a mask and criticizing those who panic. It has only this week closed off travel from abroad.

Governments in South Korea, Japan, Singapore and even Vietnam, a communist state not known for transparency, though have responded in an open fashion, with ministers regularly updating their citizens on new infection cases and on the latest sanitation advice.

Phase two responses

Several Asia states have seen infection rates spike in recent days, mostly because of infected tourists arriving from Europe, now the epicenter of the pandemic, raising concerns that while they might have survived relatively unscathed from transmission from China, transmission from Europe poses a more serious risk.

There is now also concerns in countries like China, South Korea and Japan that as the numbers of new cases slows, they might pick up again, perhaps requiring even more urgent, or new forms of, response.