• Nawal Ali

A Port in a Storm: The Effectiveness of East Asian Countries Towards the Coronavirus


As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the globe, and the number of cases and fatalities increase daily, many governments are struggling to implement a competent response to the pandemic and contain the disease. However, several countries in East Asia have so far successfully contained the spread of coronavirus within their national borders. Despite their proximity to China and a large volume of movement of goods and people with China, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea have been able to pursue an effective response to the coronavirus.

In Taiwan, as of March 21, there are 153 cases of coronavirus with two fatal cases. Drawing upon its experience during the SARS crisis in 2003 (which caused the deaths of 71 Taiwanese citizens) Taiwan created a centralized health authority called the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) to coordinate responses and mobilize resources when future pandemics occur. The CECC was able to quickly implement measures such as traveler screening, rationing face masks, and border controls-including travel bans on nearly all foreigners that are not Taiwanese residents in order to contain the virus. Furthermore, Taiwan has also heavily relied on technology during this crisis. The government integrated the national health insurance database with the immigration database so that the government could track the travel and health records of Taiwanese citizens. Also, people placed under quarantine had their location tracked by the authorities through their phones. The quick responses aimed at screening and travel restrictions combined with extensive technological surveillance meant that Taiwan was able to successfully contain the number of cases within the country despite the ongoing global pandemic.

In Singapore, there are 432 cases of coronavirus with two fatal cases. Similar to Taiwan, Singapore’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was based on their experiences during the 2003 SARS crisis (which killed 33 Singaporean citizens). In the aftermath of the SARS pandemic, Singapore expanded medical capabilities and created systems for the government to track future infections. Furthermore, Singapore imposed travel restrictions where anyone who is not a citizen or resident of Singapore as well as has traveled to China, Iran, South Korea, and Italy would not be allowed to enter Singapore. Singapore has also conducted a public relations campaign to spread awareness and encourage Singaporean to improve their hygiene habits and increase public health standards. This combination of investing in medical capacities, travel restrictions, and a public health campaign dedicated toward improving Singaporean hygiene played an important role in containing the coronavirus in Singapore and slowing down the growth of coronavirus cases as the disease continues to spread globally.​

In South Korea, there are 8,799 cases of coronavirus with 102 fatal cases. Just as Taiwan and Singapore modeled their responses to the coronavirus on their experiences during the SARS pandemic, the South Korean response took into account the lessons learned by South Korea during the 2015 MERS outbreak, when 38 South Koreans died. South Korea embarked on a massive campaign of testing as the Coronavirus outbreak occurred, which is a major reason why there are a lot more cases uncovered in South Korea compared to Singapore or Taiwan. South Korea, after Bahrain, is the country with the most amount of coronavirus testing done, with 270,000 people tested or 5200 tests per million inhabitants, and it also opened 43 drive-through testing stations. Furthermore, after the passage of new legislation, the South Korean government began collecting mobile phone, credit card, and other technological data in order to determine potential infection clusters by reconstructing the whereabouts and patterns of the people that were tested positive for coronavirus, allowing for more effective quarantine measures. This combination of early aggressive testing and technological data collection gave South Korea a better understanding of the spread of the outbreak and helped slow down the number of daily new cases of coronavirus in South Korea, as the government was able to conduct comprehensive contact tracing.

There is a large degree of overlap between these three countries in terms of their responses to the coronavirus pandemic. All three countries, in response to the inadequacy of their response to past disease outbreaks, were more willing to put forth an aggressive response to the coronavirus outbreak as early and as quickly as possible as the disease spread beyond Chinese borders. All three countries undertook a substantial effort to aggressively test their populations and build up their medical capabilities. Both Taiwan and Singapore took steps to curtail travel to their countries which was moderately successful in limiting the spread of the pandemic within their countries. All three countries were able to competently integrate new technologies to collect the data needed to engage in robust contact tracing and determine potential infection clusters allowing for a government response that more effectively contains these infection clusters and determine who is getting infected.

These countries’ responses offer a lesson to other countries dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Following the examples of Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea, countries should be taking proactive steps to enhance border controls such as increased traveler screening and travel bans, integrate new technologies to gather data and effectively conduct monitoring to track the development of infection clusters and perform contact tracing and build up medical capabilities. These measures are likely to help other countries counter the coronavirus pandemic and possibly future pandemics.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Busan Metropolitan City

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