Covid-19 is the lesson that the West needed for taking measures to prevent epidemics as seriously and effectively as natural disasters and climate change. The price for the realisation might, however, be too high
It’s been two weeks since the WHO termed Covid-19 a pandemic. The number of persons affected in the world is now much more than in China. As countries, particularly in the West, resort to desperate measures for arresting the spread of coronavirus, it is clear that most countries in Europe, and the US, and the Middle East, are unprepared for handling pandemics of the current scale. Some Asia-Pacific countries like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Japan are fighting Covid-19 much better. The West needs to learn from these countries.
Over the last couple of decades, Europe and other Western countries have been more preoccupied with handling natural disasters produced by climate-change-induced environmental disruptions. These are major security threats for countries and communities. But, so are pandemics, which appear to have received much less attention in the West. Recent infections, such as HINI and swine flu, have been internalised in the conditions in which people live. These occasionally surface, and go unnoticed, as the affected, as well as those treating them, dismiss the manifestations casually as viral flu. Over time, for most infectious diseases that were once epidemics, several countries have developed a stoic indifference, which has had implications for their capacity to handle pandemics.
Asia’s latest experience of handling Covid-19 shows countries with previous experience of handling pandemics can do better. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Japan are notable examples.
Given their proximities to mainland China—the early epicentre of Covid-19—Taiwan and Hong Kong were the most vulnerable to the disease. Cross-border mobility of people between Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland are exceptionally high. Such high mobility was getting even higher when Covid-19 began peaking in China after mid-January 2020. The period coincided with the onset of the Chinese Lunar New Year and a surge in the movement of people among countries. Yet, till now, Taiwan and Hong Kong have managed the epidemic remarkably well, with only 215 and 410 cases.
Singapore’s efforts to control Covid-19 have earned special praise from WHO. Singapore responded early to the outbreak of the virus in China by upgrading its internal alert to the second-highest level. The preventive emphasis was on social distancing within communities, prompt detection followed by contact tracing of the affected, and effective precautionary measures adopted by institutions. These have helped keep the Covid-19 numbers low. The biggest success of Singapore’s strategy, which is also a reflection of its efficient healthcare services in managing conditions of infected people, is of there being only two deaths as of now, with more than 40% victims having fully recovered and discharged from hospitals. South Korea, on the other hand, despite witnessing one of the largest incidences of the virus, has rapidly reduced the number of newly affected. Its emphasis on aggressive testing has drawn praise from the WHO. Japan, too, appears to have overcome the worst by controlling new cases.
It is not a coincidence that Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea had suffered badly from the SARS epidemic in 2003. SARS had inflicted severe health and economic damages on the region. It acted as an eye-opener for these countries by making them realise the imperative for tackling pandemics. The deep and close integration of these countries with the world economy made them particularly susceptible to public health threats transmitted by people crossing borders. Over the years, these countries have stepped up efforts to improve their systemic response and capacities to handle pandemics. The results are clearly visible.
The Covid-19 battle for these countries is far from over. Their challenge is to arrest ‘imported’ spread, as the epicentre of Covid-19 has shifted from Asia to Europe. As a result, they have resorted to tight entry restrictions for foreigners. Backed by strong internal measures, the latest moves are expected to help them keep the outbreak in check.
In the current century, the Asian countries in Asia-Pacific have experienced much more epidemics than Europe and the US. They have been better prepared for such public health exigencies. Indeed, such preparations have proceeded along with their efforts to tackle natural disasters and environmental issues. The West though, along with the oil-rich Middle East, has been far more preoccupied with the latter, particularly social and economic damages arising from greater consumption of fossil fuels, erratic weather patterns and resultant catastrophes, compared with epidemics. While they have put in place several local and regional mechanisms for coping with natural disasters and climate change adversities, they have hardly done so for epidemic management. This is evident from their shoddy approaches to managing Covid-19. For most countries in Europe, social distancing and contact tracing were emphasised much later. Testing, too, was much less rigorous. There was also insufficient attention paid to the fact that Covid-19 fatalities are highly concentrated among the elderly. As a result, few efforts were devoted to making local public health care systems, including community care facilities, more equipped for taking care of the affected elderly.
As Europe accepts the reality of the continent being the current epicentre of Covid-19, it also, along with the US, must accept that pandemics and epidemics are not localised in Asia-Pacific. It is not just countries and governments from the region that have to deal with such exigencies. Economic globalisation, championed by the West, has ensured that viruses travel fast across oceans and borders. Covid-19 is the lesson that the West needed for taking measures to prevent epidemics as seriously and effectively as natural disasters and climate change. The price for the realisation might, however, be too high.
The author is Senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. Views are personal