By Jan Willem Blankert*
In stark contrast to East Asia, Europe has paid a heavy price for complacency, neglect and hubris in responding to Covid-19.
European countries started locking down in March, a full six weeks after the complete lockdown of Wuhan. Many doctors, politicians and the public thought Covid-19 would remain confined to China and its Asian neighbours. Few paid attention to the WHO warning on 31 January when it declared the virus “a global public health threat” or even when the first cases were reported in Europe.
But in East Asia there was a radically different response, largely because they had experienced the SARS epidemic in 2003 and had made preparations, including stockpiling PPE, for something similar to happen. The results have been impressive with fewer cases and fewer deaths per head of the population than in Europe – and the US.
The Wuhan lockdown set Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea on full crisis prevention mode. In East Asia, the measures taken were clear: be fast, be firm, test and trace – and communicate and explain measures you take clearly to the public. Travelers from China were screened and then banned from entry.
There has been some suggestion that China’s lack of transparency may have delayed a more adequate European reaction to the pandemic. But on 12 January China published the sequence of the virus on the Internet and on 20 January Chinese president Xi Jinping warned on national TV of the virus. Even if China did fall short in initial transparency, the drastic and complete lockdown of Wuhan, a city of eleven million, on 23 January should have set alarm bells off everywhere.
European media did cover the Wuhan lockdown but the stories were “us and them” in their simplicity and sensationalism. There was little warning that the virus had wings. Certainly, no European leader saw it as a dire warning needing swift action. There was simply too much complacency, hubris and neglect. Europe (and the US) behaved as if they were invincible, as though they would not or could not be affected.
It was not until the end of February, five weeks after the Wuhan lockdown, that Europe began to act. As the Taiwanese doctor, in charge of Taiwan’s battle against SARS seventeen years earlier, commented “The West is now where we were in 2003”. This late reaction has been hugely damaging both in lives lost and the economic devastation.
As the first cautious relaxing of lockdown measures begins in Europe, scientists warn that relaxing restrictions is unsafe without large scale testing. That is not encouraging in an EU where only Germany seems to have the capacity to manufacture a sufficient number of tests. All other EU member states are short of tests, which are necessary to check if people can walk around “free” – and short of masks which are required for protection and common in Asia for many years.
In Europe, the criticism over the late response has been muted but will certainly come back to haunt governments. The public remains perplexed, worried and distracted by disinformation and their leaders’ blame games. But make no mistake: in an inter-connected world there will be other similar health crises. The Covid-19 pandemic should therefore be Europe’s “SARS lesson”, and governments should ensure adequate preparations for the inevitable next pandemic.
One of Singapore’s leading academics, Kishore Mahbubani, once wrote a provocative book “Can Asians Think?” Perhaps it is time for Europe to think about what it can learn from Asia.
*Jan-Willem Blankert is an Associate Fellow of the EU Asia Centre and a former EU official