With the US experiences unprecedented surges in COVID-19 numbers and Europe is still reeling from a catastrophic pandemic, many Asian countries have performed comparatively better in containing the virus. Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea have led the world in showing how countries can effectively deal with COVID-19. Living in Hong Kong, I experienced firsthand how surprisingly compliant Hongkongers were towards stringent government guidelines despite a year of stormy protests. I believe these Asian countries’ success is the result of their previous experience with other epidemics, swift governmental policies and higher levels of trust in public health policy.
Asia’s previous experience with other similar infectious diseases is largely why we dealt with COVID-19 well. Hong Kong went through a SARS outbreak in 2002-4, where 1755 people were infected and 299 died. This was the turning point in Hongkongers’ attitudes towards public health, as maintaining hygiene became deeply ingrained in everyone’s consciousness.
Taiwan also experienced SARS and saw 73 deaths, while South Korea experienced a virulent outbreak of MERS in 2015. There are four reasons why this previous experience with epidemics is important: 1) governments in these countries were more vigilant and willing to take drastic, decisive action; 2) these countries had experience in dealing with them and therefore knew what measures would be the most effective; 3) countries would have invested more in medical research for related diseases which could be utilised for COVID-19; and 4) the public would be more compliant in following measures and offer political capital for drastic action due to lingering fear from the past outbreak. All four factors were evident in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea’s relatively quick and effective response to the outbreak of COVID-19. For example, a rigorous habit of hand-washing now exists in Hong Kong and mask-wearing was normalised after the SARS outbreak.
This is in contrast to the West, which had no previous experience with large epidemics and so did not have the relevant experience or urgency in dealing with COVID-19. They also believed that similar to SARS or MERS, the outbreak would be contained mostly within Asia, and hence acted much too slowly in closing borders or instituting social distancing measures. As such, they were far less vigilant about COVID-19.
Asian governments also implemented swift and strong measures to combat COVID-19, which was another contributory factor to their success. Taiwan introduced a travel ban on visitors from China, Hong Kong and Macau very soon after the number of COVID-19 cases began to rise in mainland China. The Taiwanese government also rationed masks and started their own production of masks, dubbed “Taiwan’s Mask Miracle”. At the same time, other Asian countries started immediately shutting borders and implementing mandatory quarantine periods, preventing citizens infected abroad from becoming super-spreaders; all while temporarily shutting schools and banning mass gatherings, both of which are difficult for social distancing. A stringent policy of tracing and testing was also implemented in South Korea, which at one point had the highest testing rate in the world and successfully pioneered efficient drive-through tests. Importantly, these strong measures were implemented swiftly which saved a lot of lives. In comparison, the West was slow to react and had comparatively weaker responses. A study by Columbia University estimates that an earlier coronavirus lockdown in the United States “could have saved 36,000 lives”, showing the importance of swift responses sorely lacking in the West.
Higher levels of trust in the government for public health policies also contributed to Asian countries’ success. In Hong Kong, despite raging protests and historic levels of distrust towards the government, citizens still had a large degree of trust for public health experts who are routinely praised. Citizens were very compliant towards the government’s policies, whether that be social distancing guidelines or laws for mandatory mask-wearing. In Taiwan and South Korea, medical experts also enjoy high degrees of trust from the public, with a separation between poisonous political discourse and neutral public health policies.
Such trust in experts is lacking in the West. The US probably has the most egregious suggestions possible from their president, ranging from drinking bleach to injecting disinfectant. Add that to Trump’s regular dismissal of scientific experts on other issues like climate change and the polarisation of American politics, and a perfect storm is brewed. Similarly, Britain pioneered the idea of “herd immunity” and saw a staggering increase in daily COVID-19 cases in the beginning stages of the pandemic. In both cases, the public was distrustful towards the government and skeptical of it politicising the pandemic for their own gain. The lack of trust resulted in lower levels of compliance with necessary guidelines and less political capital for decisive action. Hence, high levels of trust was a key reason for Asian countries’ relative success.
The East and the West are very different culturally and politically, reflected in their divergent outcomes for this pandemic. Ultimately, Asia’s previous experience with other epidemics, swift governmental policies and higher levels of trust in public health policy have allowed us to deal with COVID-19 with more success. The West should take note.