A looming pandemic has been on the edge of global consciousness since Bill Gates delivered his chilling TED Talk back in 2015, showing how the world is not prepared for the next outbreak. Five years later and not much done in the way of prevention and COVID-19 rears its ugly head. Each country has responded to the crisis in its own way, adapting to the unique needs of its people, economy and geographical location. Some countries like Singapore and South Korea and more recently, China have managed to contain the virus and significantly reduce outbreaks, whilst other countries like Italy and the USA are still on the front line. But what did these countries do differently and what can we learn from them?
With a population of 5.8 million and currently having 1100 cases and 2 deaths, Singapore reported its first case on January 24th, just one day before Australia’s first case. Unlike Australia, Singapore has clear protocols in place for virus outbreaks after learning from the country’s SARS outbreak in 2002-03.
Within three days the government had introduced thermal scanning at Changi Airport and a strict quarantine for anyone arriving from Hubei province. Most western countries wasted the month of February as COVID-19 was barely on the edge of our consciousness as late as early March. From February 1st, Singapore had already barred all visitors who had been in China pithing the past fortnight. Fast forward a few weeks and Singapore had 75 confirmed cases at which point the government issued a ‘stay-at-home’ notice for those who had been to China in the past fortnight.
A common theme amongst infection and disease experts is that a countries ability and execution for testing, strict quarantine and being able to trace people who have come in contact with the virus is key to containment. Citizens of Singapore receive an SMS a couple of times a day with a link that must be clicked to show where your phone is. Two people have even been charged with giving false information surrounding this strict new policy.
This may be all well and good for a city-state like Singapore (and may I say good on them), but would these policies and procedures work on a bigger country? And a common pillar of western thought is that of privacy and the blatant phone tracing will likely not be comfortable with many. But as author and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari aptly pointed out, in times like these (and in normal times) I think if you asked people whether they choose their health or their privacy, they will choose their health. Perhaps Australia could adopt similar policies on a regional or even community basis.
South Korea is another success story in the current fight against COVID-19. Having learned from their shortcomings in fighting the MERS outbreak in 2015, South Korea was a model response despite some early setbacks. Even before the country had any confirmed cases, quarantine and screening measure were in place for arrivals from Wuhan as of January 3. Their first case was on January 20 and by February 20 this had jumped to 104 cases at which point the government shut down religious gatherings and restricted the movement of citizens and accessed their personal data for tracing purposes. Daycare centres and outdoor rallies were also shut down along with the re-opening of schools being postponed.
As I mentioned above, experts say (and South Korea confirms it) that testing is critical in the containing of COVID-19. South Korea set up 96 public labs, facilitating the testing of 20, 000 people per day. By Match 19 they had tested more than 280, 000. Testing, although it was the cause for South Korea’s early spike in cases, their rigorous phone tracing allowed them to track down cases quickly and efficiently resulting in their success today.
South Korea and Singapore both deserve a gold star for their quick, efficient and effective responses to the pandemic. Each country had its own policies and moulded them around their own population, location and economy and have both yielded excellent results. Now, with lots of countries in Asia appearing to be doing a better job in ‘flattening the curve’, the spotlight has shifted to Europe, where most new cases are now appearing.
What Australia can learn from this is that we need to find procedures that suit the needs of our sparse country and its citizens. The comparatively strict NSW lockdown rules are definitely step in the right direction. And if the day comes where we do have to choose between health and privacy, I choose health.