Entering its fourth month, COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc worldwide and challenge earlier notions of how best to respond to it. Its geographic scope, high infection and casualty toll and severe economic effect raise the bar for future pandemic response.
Four key lessons are emerging. First, travel bans alone delayed but did not halt the momentum of the virus. Second, while seen as draconian and debilitating for the economy, lockdowns present a viable containment strategy especially in light of limited testing capacity. Third, surveillance technologies — seen as intrusive in the West — have been a key factor in the success of several Asian countries in curtailing the pandemic. Fourth, failure to act fast has tragic consequences. Preparation before an outbreak is even more critical than prevention measures after the virus starts spreading.
When the outbreak began in Wuhan in late 2019, several countries quickly imposed travel restrictions, closed down consulates and evacuated their citizens from the central Chinese city. But travel bans only gave a false sense of security. At best, they served to slow the spread of the pandemic by a few days or weeks. Such bans also became futile once the virus landed onshore.
Some countries which were quick to impose travel bans against China are now among the hardest hit. Italy, the first EU country to impose travel restrictions against China, became the second ground zero of the contagion. At over 18,000 deaths, it already far exceeds the official casualty count in China. The United States — which enforced travel restrictions against China in early February — is now the epicentre of the pandemic with over 460,000 cases and approaching 16,000 fatalities.
As the virus spreads through Europe and North America, countries with travel restrictions against China and seriously affected Asian countries like South Korea now find themselves the subjects of similar measures.
While most countries adopted varying forms of travel restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus, there was an initial reluctance in instituting lockdowns. The success of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore in containing the virus and minimising mortality gave hope that democratic societies would be better equipped to fight the pandemic without following authoritarian China’s draconian quarantine measures. These Asian democracies took resolute steps — such as rapid mass testing, rigorous contact tracing, social distancing and widespread information dissemination.
But aside from the culture of wearing face masks in public places, their success can also be attributed to their relative geography, size and population. Rolling out such measures across a continent like Europe or a continental country like the United States — with a larger population and open contiguous borders — is not easy. The coronavirus knows no political colour and neither do responses to it. East Asian democracies, for instance, integrated health and travel history data and employed digital surveillance technologies for risk assessment, contact tracing and monitoring quarantine compliance. Reforms undertaken in response to the 2003 SARS outbreak helped prepare these countries.
Europe and the United States did eventually adopt lockdown measures. While coming at a steep price to people’s mobility and the economy, these measures stalled the contagion’s spread. Military and police patrol the streets of Italy, Spain and France to implement curfews and stay-at-home orders. Some countries like Israel also rolled out mobile apps to track confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients. In fact, despite its early success, Singapore eventually went into lockdown too as cases continue to rise. Many are also racing to deploy mass testing following Seoul’s recipe, with Germany rising to the occasion.
Much of developing Asia has also recently gone into lockdown. For countries with poor public health systems and compact neighbourhoods, curtailing local foot traffic is critical in slowing the spread of the virus while buying time to enhance local health capacity.
The coronavirus conundrum shows the folly of underestimating and being ill-prepared in the face of an invisible adversary. Given the complex web of global transport and trade networks, travel bans only gave a brief respite. Despite China’s opaque initial response to the outbreak, the international community watched on the sidelines as the world’s second largest economy pulled out all the stops in its struggle against an unseen but potent threat. Outside East Asia, little came in the way of preparation within that space of over two months.
Some countries may have thought that distance offers security and a better public health system provides insurance. Those miscalculations proved costly. In late January, even as the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, few countries took the problem seriously enough to implement measures beyond travel bans. As late as mid-March, a LGBTQ festival in the United States and concerts and a marathon in the United Kingdom went on. This complacency was disastrous. Thus, when the coronavirus did spill beyond China’s borders, it caught many governments by surprise, overwhelmed hospitals and sparked panic.
The scale of COVID-19 — over 1.5 million cases and over 95,000 deaths in over 200 countries and territories — and its huge economic and social impact will change how the world responds to similar health crises going forward. It will increase demand for transparency for countries facing outbreaks of a disease new to science. It will trigger conversations about the balance between civil liberties and private enterprise, and the exercise of state power in times of emergencies, as well as central–local government relations during crises. It may compel geopolitical rivals to cooperate even amid heightened suspicion and acrimony.
The pandemic is bridging the East–West political and cultural divide as countries around the world share best practices and offer assistance. Hopefully, much needed reforms will take root so the world can better respond to the next pandemic.
This article was published by East Asia Forum