Like the Titanic striking a massive iceberg in 1912, a novel coronavirus, later named COVID-19, struck Wuhan in China late last year. 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 nations.
Amid the gloomy scenarios painted by traditional and social media, the world’s policymakers, as well as individual citizens, must pay close attention to what some governments did to restrain the pandemic, and examine why it took such a heavy toll on other countries.
The world can learn from the first regions hit and perhaps prevent the global ship — that so many thought was unsinkable — from hitting more icebergs.
Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — each with strong language, economic and cultural links to China, and situated in close proximity to it — have managed to keep their death figures to single digits.
They did this primarily through vigorous testing and tracing of infected persons.
Taiwan is effectively barred from the UN and the WHO by Beijing through its permanent membership on the UN Security Council. Despite this, Taiwan has proven to be the most effective, along with Hong Kong and Singapore, in protecting its nearly 24 million citizens from the disease.
Although Italy and Taiwan confirmed their first cases in almost the same week, Italy tragically has more than 80,500 active cases and more than 8,200 deaths as of Friday, while Taiwan has about 267 confirmed cases and only two fatalities.
The Taiwanese government has enacted almost 100 initiatives, including screening Wuhan flights as early as Dec. 31, banning Wuhan residents on Jan. 23, suspending tourist visits to Hubei Province on Jan. 25 and barring all Chinese arrivals on Feb. 6.
It merged citizens’ recent international travel records with their digital health insurance information and allowed doctors and pharmacists access to the data. Stiff fines were applied to people who breach quarantine.
Singapore took a similar approach in deploying police to locate contacts of infected people and using government-issued cellphones to keep tabs on those in quarantine.
Three doctors said recently that “relative normalcy of day-to-day life has been maintained.”
The general approach in all three areas 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 daily.
People who breached home isolation regulations were fined up to NT$1 million (US$33,073). The price of masks was brought down to NT$5 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 to 2004 and Ebola in 2014 to 2016. Unfortunately, reality proved otherwise.
As of Friday, there were more than 533,433 confirmed cases and 24,113 deaths worldwide, Johns Hopkins University data showed.
Another major need from all governments is transparency, early warnings and clear, honest and effective communications with the public.
A South China Morning Post article said that Chinese government data indicate that the first COVID-19 case was identified in November last year.
A University of South Hampton study showed 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, said that China is subject as a 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,” he said.
Although China is probably in breach of the convention, individual Chinese, whether residents of China or in diasporas, are not to blame for the catastrophic effects of Beijing’s mishandling of the situation. Many of them have been heroic in their conduct, including providing care for others.
Similarly in Canada, medical professionals, first responders, caregivers and public are struggling with a new health catastrophe often with inadequate knowledge and equipment.
The lessons from the three Asian leaders on the present health crisis are invaluable.
David Kilgour is a former Canadian federal lawmaker from Alberta and Cabinet minister. Susan Korah is a Canadian journalist based in Ottawa.
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