Can the west slow down Covid-19 like some Asian countries?

Strategies Implemented by Asian Nations

From late until early , nearly a million people have contracted the new coronavirus COVID-19, with a tragic total of approximately 50,000 deaths.

The United States and countries in Europe are alarmed by the increase in cases of this pandemic, but others have managed to slow down its progress, at least temporarily.

For this reason, it is worth looking at the strategies implemented by some Asian nations– from government agencies, to public policies, to the response of citizens. The results of these strategies are reflected in a reduction of new COVID-19 cases, while the growth in the number of infected is rising uncontrollably in other locations.

Hong Kong: The community plays a leading role in controlling the pandemic, aside from its own government

Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous city, initially managed to contain its coronavirus outbreak with swift measures such as the closure of schools and government offices, as well as restrictions on flights from mainland China. This almost immediate response has a key element behind it: there was already a precedent for this type of action.

When COVID-19 arrived in Hong Kong, both the authorities and the population had some experience with taking anti-contagion measures due to outbreaks that occurred in , , and .

These experiences evolved into a culture of asepsis (maintaining sanitary conditions). The site for RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong) comments that almost everyone in Hong Kong has worn face masks in public for years. If it is discovered that someone has symptoms and does not wear a mask, this person can be arrested.

After the initial COVID-19 cases, a testing operation was launched. Everyone with a positive result had to remain in quarantine for 14 days at home. They also had to wear a tracking bracelet, as their movements would be monitored by a smartphone application available to the public. More than 200,000 people were quarantined in their homes.

Hong Kong police take government-imposed quarantine measures very seriously.

Even though there have been relatively few cases, officials have arrested people who violated the ban on going out or who removed the tracking bracelets from their wrists.

Law enforcement agencies are not the only ones watching. In Hong Kong, there was a case of a 13-year-old girl who was seen in a restaurant with a quarantine tracking bracelet. She was followed, filmed, and later shamed on social networks.

The government took a series of social distancing measures, such as the suspension of large events and school activities, as well as certain economic activities. All this was accompanied by educational campaigns to promote handwashing. Likewise, the government urged its residents to work remotely.

The use of technology in Hong Kong has allowed for the option to move the educational and work world home, since the government has promoted different platforms for virtual classes and meetings.

The government, health experts, and the community know that control of the virus will come in “waves.” That is, there are periods of time when people are ordered to stay at home, there are closures of places such as sports facilities, museums, and libraries, and there are restrictions on certain flights, but then things will reopen and restrictions will be relaxed for a period. Days later these measures will be resumed.

The results are clear: as of , Hong Kong, a city with 7.4 million inhabitants, reported just over 400 COVID-19 cases in total. On that day, only 48 new infections were recorded.

These achievements are not perceived as a successful government strategy, but as the result of community efforts.

A survey conducted by The Chinese University of Hong Kong found that about 72 of the population attributed the control of the COVID-19 pandemic to their own actions and not to the administration of President Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Of course, this also reflects the long-running political tensions between the government and the people of Hong Kong.

Singapore: A fight against COVID-19 and fake news through openness of information

Like Hong Kong, Singapore had suffered epidemics in the past that prepared it to face COVID-19.

From the start of the new health crisis, the Singaporean government began publishing a detailed report of how many people had been tested for the new coronavirus, where they were, and the nature of their social contacts.

Strict social distancing measures were also taken, such as canceling events, closing schools, and telling people to stay home.

As a result, as of , the country of 5.6 million inhabitants had a total of 1,000 infections and just three deaths.

In addition to paying attention to social distancing measures, at the same time the government actively focused on fighting another enemy: misinformation.

The website for Singapore’s Ministry of Health keeps citizens up to date on the latest information related to COVID-19 and its spread.

A key tactic of the Asian country’s action program has been to challenge the fake news spread on social media.

On the Ministry of Health’s website, there is a section dedicated to COVID-19 that welcomes visitors with an alert countering any fake news.

The website also provides tables with detailed statistics of active cases, indicating cases that originated in other countries, as well as cases resulting in hospitalizations, recoveries, and deaths.

On the other hand, like several other Asian countries, the use of technology in Singapore is essential to its open information strategy. For this reason, the Government Technology Agency and the Ministry of Health have also taken on the task of creating a tracking application for Android and iPhone mobile devices.

With users’ consent, the TraceTogether application shares Bluetooth signals to alert other users when a quarantined person is nearby.

Before the launch of the application, the country’s authorities had already started tracking citizens. They followed the movements of numerous patients and found other cases through collaboration with police forces, as well as through interviews and analysis of public transport records, according to  Nikkei Asian Review.

Users can also keep up with the latest updates from the Ministry of Health through WhatsApp.

As for preventive measures, social distancing is the norm in Singapore, whose government asked its citizens not to leave their residences for a period of 14 days unless it was for necessary activities. It also urged people to take their temperature and to be on the alert for symptoms such as coughing and breathing difficulties.

As in other countries, the authorities in Singapore promote handwashing and covering your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough. They also ask people not to share utensils such as cutlery, or even food, and they advise people to clean continuously.

Furthermore, three Singaporean government ministers held meetings with Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu and Sikh leaders to request the implementation of preventive measures in religious rites, which have not yet been suspended in the country.

Taiwan: a hard lesson that ended up leading the military to make face masks

Taiwan is an island just 80 miles from China. There is a constant flow of travelers between the two countries because many Taiwanese work in China, and some 850,00 even live there. For this reason, since the day that the COVID-19 outbreak was reported in the giant Asian country, the neighboring island began taking preventive action.

It seems that this time, Taiwan is determined not to repeat the mistakes made in during the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which rapidly spread in that country.

That year, in just over a month, what started as 10 suspected SARS cases turned into 680 confirmed cases and 81 deaths. The rapid transmission of the disease had different causes, according to Taiwanese university researchers Ying-Hen Hsieh, Cathy W.S. Chen and Sze-Bi Hsu.

The researchers proved through statistical information that there were delays in confirming SARS cases in Taiwan. Furthermore, they believe that confusion about testing procedures contributed to this.

The researchers concluded that the high percentage of infections occurring in Taiwanese hospitals suggests that suspected cases (without prior confirmation) infected hospitalized patients, which was the largest factor in the spread of the disease.

Following the SARS epidemic, Taiwan created the National Health Command Center (NHCC), a vital agency for emergencies such as the COVID-19 outbreak.

The NHCC headquarters has radio and satellite communication systems, a command center, a media watch room, a data center, and even a customer service window.

Through the work of the NHCC, the Taiwanese government has the basis to make decisions in emergencies such as the COVID-19 outbreak. Hence, the Asian island activated its health protocols on , hours after the outbreak was confirmed in Wuhan, China.

C. Jason Wang from the Stanford University School of Medicine, Chun Y. Ng from the Koo Foundation Sun Yat-Sen Cancer Center, and Robert H. Brook from the School of Medicine at the University of California Los Angeles have been in charge of detailing 124 strategies implemented by the Asian island in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, such as monitoring the symptoms of passengers from Wuhan. On , they found the first traveler from this city who had a fever.

Then, on , 459 tourists from Wuhan were denied entrance to country. That same day, the Taiwanese government also ordered an increase in mask production nationwide, and it established price controls on this product, set at 0.20 per unit.

The policies were subsequently tightened, prohibiting travel to China, Hong Kong, and Macau. However, there were exceptions for travel between the airports of Beijing, Shanghai Pudong, Shanghai Hongqiao, Xiamen, and Chengdu, given the importance of these cities as employment epicenters for at least 404,000 Taiwanese.
Can the west slow down Covid-19 like some Asian countries?
Correspondingly, travelers currently entering Taiwan must fill out a health questionnaire. Failure to fill out the form or lying on the form can result in a 5,000 fine. Furthermore, people coming from countries on high alert (such as Japan, Italy, and Iran) are subject to stricter controls.

The Taiwanese government has invested 6.6 million in purchasing equipment to increase mask production and has also ordered more than 1,800 military personnel to work in 28 factories to make masks.

To avoid economic speculation, fines were set (of 167,000 or more and up to seven years in prison) for those who illegally increase prices of supplies that prevent disease.

In addition, the National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA) began 30-day tracking of passengers who came from or passed through China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Thailand, suspected to have COVID-19, and of all people showing symptoms of the illness who had come into contact with these travelers.

The government announced fines of 5,000 for those who violate the home quarantine and 10,000 for those who disobey home-based isolation.

Before these fines were set, three Hong Kong residents were found to have escaped monitoring for a week without respecting quarantine and were fined 2,350 each.

Regarding communications, the Digital Minister of Taiwan, together with a team of engineers, designed an application for people to find pharmacies where masks were available.

Other measures included fines of 100,000 for spreading fake news about the virus, the suspension of classes at all levels, and the cleaning of public spaces to prevent further infections.

Vietnam: Rapid actions with limited resources

In the last decade, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has been overcoming a situation of poverty and has become one of the fastest-growing economies in the region. But it still has a long way to go if we compare it with other Asian countries. For example, Vietnam has a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 6,900 per capita, while in Taiwan the GDP per capita is 50,300, and in Singapore it is 93,900.

Facing the outbreak of the epidemic and subsequent pandemic of COVID-19, Vietnam compensated for its lack of resources by quickly taking a series of strict measures that included suspension of flights, the closing of schools, and quarantining recent arrivals.

On , Vietnam suspended all flights to and from China. It also decided to keep schools closed after the Lunar New Year vacation. Two weeks later, a 21-day quarantine was imposed in the Vinh Phuc province, north of Hanoi.

The government also decided to suspend the issuance of visas to foreigners for 30 days as a preventive measure in the face of the pandemic, while those who already had visas had to prove that they were not infected in order to enter the country.

The visa suspension measure was also extended at the time to the inhabitants of Russia, Belarus, and Japan, who previously had visa exemption programs.

Moreover, travelers who have arrived from countries such as the United States, or who belong to the European or Asian continent, are subject to quarantine in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese Ministry of Health actively worked to locate passengers from certain international flights so that they could immediately go to locations dedicated to disease control.

In addition to these public requests, the Vietnamese government’s online newspaper gives updates if it can track suspected passengers on flights arriving in the country from countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Malaysia and Russia.

Thus, Vietnam has demonstrated its approach of not only tracking passengers from places with the most COVID-19 cases, but also expanding its testing criteria to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus among its population.

Like other countries, Vietnam has requested the mandatory use of face masks on flights, in airports, supermarkets, public transport and other places where there are large groups of people.

The Vietnamese government also issued an action call to all of its medical workers, including retired public healthcare employees, to serve in the face of this health emergency.

Even though the government of Vietnam maintains a socialist ideology, it provides its people more openness than China regarding the use of social networks such as Facebook, where they can disseminate information, even if it takes a position that is critical of the government.

According to analysts, one aspect of the strategies’ success has been people’s cooperation in following the guidelines. This has hampered the effectiveness of measures implemented in other places such as Italy and Spain, where the community’s noncompliance has led to an increased number of cases.

As of , the country ruled out about 16,000 suspected cases, confirmed 218 infections, and reported no deaths from COVID-19.


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This story was produced by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of six media companies working together in an effort launched by the Solutions Journalism Network and supported by funding from Knight Foundation.

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José Carlos Cordero Cote

Periodista y docente venezolano. Licenciado en Comunicación Social de la Universidad de Los Andes, Núcleo Universitario “Rafael Rangel”, donde ahora es profesor de Periodismo Digital.