Analysis: The US and Europe face rising Covid-19 case numbers as they squander lessons from Asia-Pacific
Europe is now reporting more daily infections than the United States, Brazil, or India — the countries that have been driving the global case count for months — as public apathy grows towards coronavirus guidelines. Several countries are seeing infection rates spiral again after a summer lull that saw measures to contain the virus and travel restrictions relaxed.
It is just the latest problem to beset Britain’s slapdash pandemic response. There are now more patients in hospital with Covid-19 in England than there were in March, when a nationwide lockdown was imposed, according to Johnson and health officials.
In the United States, there were more new positive cases in the White House on October 2 than in the whole of Taiwan, after President Donald Trump became the second G7 leader (after Johnson) to test positive for Covid-19. Despite his illness, Trump has continued to downplay the severity of the virus and potentially endanger the health of those around him, holding a campaign rally on Monday.
Seven months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic, life is closer to normal in the Asia-Pacific region thanks to the basic lessons of epidemiology: clear communication, quarantines, border controls, aggressive testing and contact tracing, Kenji Shibuya, the Director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London, told CNN.
European countries with successful pandemic responses, like Germany, have taken this approach.
This is a maddening idea to the vast majority of health professionals and scientists, who point to Covid-19’s high fatality rate and its long-term effects on survivors.
“When countries [like the US and UK] experience declining life expectancy, it really should be a red flag,” said Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Deteriorating health in populations has electoral consequences, McKee told CNN — adding that historically, those factors caused “populism and then you get state failure.”
Border controls have been effective, says Shibuya. Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand have largely kept their borders closed to visitors, with returning citizens and work permit holders being quarantined at home or at designated facilities.
The UK deploys conventional contact-tracing methods, which identify cases and track down the people they met after they became infectious, says McKee. Meanwhile, Asian countries like South Korea have relied on what is known as backwards tracing, which attempts to identify the event, place or source of an infection.
“Was it the churches in Germany, our packing plants or a nightclub in Korea?” Mckee said, adding that instead of focusing on the source of infection, the UK has “hit whole communities with a hammer” of localized lockdowns without consulting local leaders. He says such measures are appropriate “if you don’t have intelligence” on the source of an outbreak, but adds: “The UK should not be in that position at this stage.”
Asia-Pacific’s response has been shaped by the 2003 SARS outbreak. Trauma from that period meant many Asian countries were better prepared and better resourced to act decisively at start of the pandemic with public approval.
Communication strategies are an underestimated “non-pharmaceutical intervention” which are not only useful in the short term — by encouraging measures like mask usage — but have long-term uses as well, says Heidi Tworek, an associate professor of international history and public policy at the University of British Columbia, who authored a report on democratic communications during the pandemic.
The report analyzed three democratic jurisdictions in the Asia-Pacific region — Taiwan, New Zealand, and South Korea — and found that cohesive messages from those governments were useful in forestalling “compliance fatigue” and laid the foundation for vaccine uptake. “They also matter for cultivating trust among citizens and their governments — trust that is critical for the future stability of democratic institutions,” the report stated.
New Zealand and South Korea adopted a “division-of-labour approach to communicating political and scientific information,” the report noted. Public health officials would first deliver the science. The message would be humanized and reinforced with meaning by politicians like New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern or South Korea’s President Moon Jae-on in televised addresses or Facebook lives, Tworek said.
Misinformation and conspiracies were tackled in South Korea and Taiwan via high quality information being pushed out on multiple channels, Tworek added. To engage the public, the Taiwanese government worked with local comedians to create memes for their “humor over rumor” strategy. It included the use of a cartoon “spokesdog,” a Shiba Inu called Zongchai, to help communicate its policies. One meme showed that the 1.5 meter indoor social distancing policy equated to the length of three Shiba Inu, while the outdoor social distancing policy was two Shiba Inu.
Masks were distributed to Taiwanese households at the start of the pandemic — many of them in a shade of pink. After hearing that male students were being bullied for wearing pink masks at schools, officials wore pink face coverings at their daily briefing. “It is fantastic because it’s not just about countering disinformation, it is about countering stigma and prejudice,” Tworek said. “This is not rocket science. These are basic tenets of health and risk communications [in order to] establish trust.”
Have an upcoming election in the pandemic? Asian democracies also have a solution to that. South Korea saw its highest turnout in April’s poll as voters wore masks and gloves, polling booths were disinfected, and people spaced out as they queued to vote. In the US, officials are turning large venues and sports centers into polling stations in order to accommodate social distancing concerns in November’s poll.
America’s largest roadblock remains its President, who has repeatedly called into question the integrity of the democratic process by undermining the safest way to hand in a ballot in a pandemic: Mail-in voting.
Unlike the Asia-Pacific region, the West appears to be well on its way to a tragic winter.