The number of coronavirus cases in the West is skyrocketing, and countries have announced drastic measures, including school closures and lockdowns.
The outbreak hit many countries in Asia several weeks earlier – and some have been praised for containing the number of infections. For example, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan all kept case numbers relatively low – despite their proximity to mainland China.
What did they do differently – and are there any lessons for other countries?
1. Lesson one: Take it seriously – and act quickly
Health experts agree on the same measures for containing the outbreak – test widely, isolate those infected and encourage social distancing. Such measures are being adopted to varying degrees in the West now – but a key difference is that many countries didn’t act as quickly.
2.Lesson two: Make tests extensive, and affordable
Cases in South Korea spiked initially. However, it swiftly developed a test for the virus – and has now tested more than 290,000 people. It conducts about 10,000 tests daily for free.
3. Lesson three: Trace and isolate
It’s not enough to just test those with symptoms – tracing those with whom they were in contact has been key.
In Singapore, detectives have contact-traced more than 6,000 people – locating individuals with CCTV footage, testing them, and ordering them to self-isolate until their results are clear. In Hong Kong, contact tracing goes back to two days before someone develops symptoms.
4. Lesson four: Early social distancing
Social distancing is considered one of the best ways of containing an outbreak.
But the later the measures are introduced, the more extreme they need to be to work. In Wuhan, China, where the virus is thought to have started, five million people had left the city before the shutdown began. This led to the government imposing the biggest quarantine in human history.
By contrast, schools are still running in Singapore, although large public gatherings have been cancelled. In Hong Kong, schools have been closed and workers encouraged to work from home – but restaurants and bars remain open.
5. Lesson five: Keep the public well informed and on side
Unless you get the co-operation of the public, your policies may not be adhered to, and enforcement only goes so far. The important thing is to show that policies are based on scientific evidence.
6. Lesson six: It’s also down to individual attitudes
It’s far too simplistic to say, as some have, that Asians are more likely to comply with government orders. In Hong Kong, public trust in the government is low – and there have been months of anti-government protests. But, in one of the densest cities in the world, many have voluntarily socially distanced themselves – with some even avoiding Lunar New Year gatherings, the equivalent of skipping Christmas events.