Like the Titanic striking a massive iceberg in 1912, a deadly novel coronavirus, later named COVID-19, struck Wuhan in China in late 2019. First revealed by local doctors in early December, the virus spread like a global tidal wave and has now infected residents in 152 of the 193 UN member-countries.
Amid the gloomy scenarios painted by some media — traditional and social — the world’s policy-makers, as well as individual citizens, should pay close attention to what some governments did to restrain the pandemic and to examine why in other countries it took such a heavy toll.
The world can learn from the first group of countries and perhaps prevent the global ship — that so many of us thought was unsinkable — from hitting more rocks.
Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore–all southeast Asian polities with strong language, economic and cultural links to China, and situated in close proximity to it, have managed to date to keep their deaths to single digits.
They did this primarily by vigorous testing and tracing of infected persons.
Taiwan is effectively barred from both the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) by the Beijing party-state through continuous leveraging of its permanent membership on the Security Council. Despite this, it has proven to be the most effective (with Hong Kong and Singapore) in protecting its nearly 24 million citizens from the disease.
Although both Italy and Taiwan confirmed their first cases in about the same week, by April 7, Italy tragically had about 132,500 active cases and 16,500 deaths, while Taiwan had about 373 confirmed cases and only five fatalities.
Almost 100 initiatives, mostly from Taiwan’s national government, have included screening Wuhan flights as early as December 31; banning Wuhan residents on January 23; suspending tourist visits to Hubei province on January 25, and barring all Chinese arrivals on February 6.
The Taiwan government merged citizens’ recent international travel records with their digital health-insurance files and allowed doctors and pharmacists access to the information. Stiff fines were applied to quarantine violators.
Singapore took a similarly serious approach, deploying police to track down the contacts of infected residents and using government-issued cellphones to keep tabs on those in quarantine. Three local doctors said recently that “relative normalcy of day-to-day life has been maintained.”
The general approach in all three jurisdictions was a range of aggressive measures based on the view that COVID-19 would spread quickly and widely. This meant testing for infection quickly. Today, testing capacity for COVID-19 in Taiwan has reached 3,400 samples a day.
Violators of home isolation regulations were fined up to (US)$5,000. The price of surgical masks was brought down to (US) $.20 and production greatly increased.
By contrast, most other countries opted for delayed containment strategies, hoping the emerging international calamity would prove no worse than SARS in 2002-2004 and Ebola in 2014-2016. Unfortunately, reality proved otherwise. According to Johns Hopkins University, there were by March 23 more than 350,536 confirmed cases and 15,328 deaths worldwide.
Another major need from all governments is transparency, early warnings, and clear, honest and effective communication with the public.
According to the South China Morning Post, government data in China indicates that the first COVID-19 case was identified in November 2019. A University of Southampton (UK) study has concluded that if Beijing had revealed the facts and acted three weeks earlier than it did, the number of cases would have been reduced by 95 percent.
David Matas, a member of the Canadian delegation to the UN conference on the establishment of an International Criminal Court, notes that China is subject as a state party to the Biological Weapons Convention:
“In my view, non-reporting is a form of retention in violation of the Convention. The United States is also a state party to the treaty. If the US found China acted in breach of its obligations deriving from the provisions of the Convention by its delay in reporting the coronavirus, the US could lodge a complaint with the Security Council.
While the party-state of China is probably in violation of the Convention, individual Chinese, whether residents of China or in diasporas around the world, are in no way to blame for the catastrophic effects of the state party’s mishandling of the situation. Many of them have been heroic in their conduct, including providing care for others.
Similarly in Canada, our medical professionals, first responders, caregivers and the population as a whole are struggling with a new health catastrophe, often with inadequate knowledge and equipment. The lessons from the three Asian leaders in the present health crisis are invaluable.
David Kilgour is a former secretary of state for Asia-Pacific in the cabinet of Jean Chretien. Susan Korah is an Ottawa journalist. This article originally appeared in The Suburban.