With their various and unique permutations of social distancing, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan have been exemplary and leaders in their game-plan with the coronavirus-19.
They have each chosen their own pathways refusing to ape the lockdown strategies of China and Italy.
Citizens’ trust inspired by credible socio-political governance
All three governments have inspired trust, respect and acceptance among their citizenry despite early hiccups in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The three nations had the benefit of previous coronavirus scare which somewhat boosted their preparedness plans. SARS1 epidemic in 2003 infected 1755 Hong Kong citizens and killed 299 of them. In South Korea, MERS CoV killed 36 out of 186 people infected.
Apart from past experiences with epidemics, South Korea’s history is coloured with multiple crises which included the invasion by Japan and the perpetual threat from their northern neighbours.
Two weeks after China informed the world scientists of the SARS-CoV-2 genome, the South Korean government sanctioned a Korean designed rt-PCR testing kit, and licensed 4 companies to ramp up production which today exports to 106 different countries.
Swift central government action, well coordinated with provincial authorities (unlike the Conditional Movement Control Order), kick-started mass testing, apps assisted tracking, rapid responses in isolating infected persons within the context of a transparent information ambiance.
This empowered all 3 countries to drive the Ro below 1.0, flatten the curve, minimize hospitalisations and mortalities, and protected their health care capacity, without entirely shutting down the national economy.
Taiwan’s first case was recorded on 21 January 2020, and as at 3 May 2020 had accumulated 432 cases. For the past 2 weeks Taiwan has had 12 cases which means less than 1 case per day. The 6 Covid-19 deaths equals a Case Fatality Rate (CFR) of 1.4 percent.
“Shih-chung” closely means “clock” in Chinese. A recent popular saying in Taiwan is “If you go clockwise, you will win, if you go anticlockwise, you will lose.” It attributes Taiwan’s success Covid-19 story to its health minister, Chen Shih-chung
South Korea experienced her first case one day earlier on 20 January 2020, and has 10,793 cases as at 3 May 2020. The previous 2 weeks saw an average of 8 cases per day. There were 250 deaths giving a CFR of 2.3 percent.
President Moon Jae-in’s excellent stewardship of South Korea’s containment of Covid-19, secured his ruling party an absolute majority in the recent parliamentary elections.
As at 4 May 2020, Hong Kong has had 4 deaths from 1,039 cases, a CFR of 0.38 percent.
The citizens of all 3 nations were inspired by their political leaders’ competent handling of the Covid-19 crisis and which henceforth built much needed trust and partnership to sustain the campaign.
Notwithstanding, the stellar socio-political governance, another major contributor to their success stories have been the exemplary mindset, behavior and culture of their peoples.
The Chinese of Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Koreans were wearing masks even before official guidance from their governments were forthcoming. Their earlier experiences with SARS1 and MERS-CoV kept them on high alert to potential threats to their health.
The CDC and WHO guidelines, until recently, were against the liberal use of face masks. They were however, not based on good science except to save them for use by healthcare workers (HCWs) in the midst of severe shortage.
This rule has had the unintended result of stigmatizing mask wearers as either being contagious or a mask hoarder. It is all about crowd psychology. If everyone wears a mask, the hesitant sick person will now be more willing to put on a mask because there will no more stigma associated.
The face mask, including the cloth masks, blocks the big projectile droplets that land in the nose or throat and cause the spread of Covid-19 infection.
Like physical distancing and hand-washing the mask for all policy has somewhat contributed to Asia’s better flattening the epidemic curve.
Fast forward, the mask-for-all policy may be the middle ground policy to harmonize between total lockdown that hurts the economy & total freedom with the risk of Covid-19 resurgence.
Not waiting for the clear mandate from an ambivalent Ministry of Health, private citizens in Malaysia and the Selangor Task Force on Covid-19 (STFC) have been strongly advocating its use by all and calling for a mandatory rule on mask usage.
Privacy versus national security
A recent Korean survey showed that 78.5 percent of respondents are prepared to give up their civil liberties such as individual privacy as part of the government’s efforts surveillance activities to fight the pandemic. National security was upper most in their minds, above individual liberties in the campaign against Covid-19.
This would seem to be the prevalent Asian culture which is relatively and readily subservient to the authorities in their efforts to attain the larger good for the community which contrasts diametrically with the liberal west which places a large premium on individual rights, personal autonomy and freedom.
The use of apps tracking in the process of contact tracing has been fraught with intense discussions on the intrusion into the privacy of its citizens. South Korea was among the first to utilize this apps technology where contact tracers use patients’ health records, credit card transaction data, closed-circuit TV and mobile phone locations to trace their movements and find their contacts.
One of the earliest to roll out its own apps has been Singapore’s TraceTogether app, built by the city state’s government, but the voluntary uptakes has only been 20 percent. Researchers at the University of Oxford suggests that tracing apps can only be effective in reducing infection if more than 60 percent of the population adopts it.
Tthe US president instructed his Republican following on Twitter to demonstrate against the lockdown and liberate several Democrat states. In one scene that played out, HCW were seen silently blocking traffic against protesting motorists in Denver.
I am afraid the liberals in the West will pay dearly for their misplaced obsession with personal values and civil rights. This is not much different from the situation in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and some other Muslim majority countries who would suffer similarly for their citizens’ misplaced religiosity.
Pakistan, the second most populous Muslim nation, reversed its restrictions on congregational prayers in mosques, whilst stipulating that worshippers would maintain a 6 foot distance from each other instead of the usual Muslim practice of praying shoulder to shoulder and that mosque administrations will disinfect premises regularly.
This following protests from Muslim clerics, including Mufti Taqi Usmani, a renowned religious scholar and former judge of the Federal Shariah Court, representing several religious organisations said; “In the present conditions, five daily prayers along with precautionary measures are essential.
Self-discipline and commendable behavioral traits
The South Koreans and Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong, did not need to be forced by their governments to follow any specific restrictions to their movements and behaviours.
Their citizens were at liberty to utilize public transport and shop at various business outlets even during the pandemic, and were not coerced to stay in their homes.
They complied voluntarily with the guidelines advocated by the authorities, to choose to stay indoors or practice social distancing if out in the open, because of their high level of trust in the governments’ handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
This is unlike many other Asian countries which implemented various degrees of lockdowns.
In the Malaysian Movement Control Order (MCO), the restriction was universal except for emergency and essential services. Those caught exercising in the parks were fined RM1,000 and there were multiple roadblocks that checked and prevented the free flow of traffic.
Singaporeans obeyed strictly the country’s guidelines knowing very well the city’s strict enforcement of laws and regulations, which includes a fine of up to S$1,000 for non-compliance.
Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte was reported to have instructed the police and military to “shoot” people seen outside causing “violence” during the lockdown.
I am somewhat disappointed with the Covid-19 situation in Japan.
I was hoping that the Japanese exceptional citizens’ values and cultural heritage would see them through the outbreak and set them apart like these 3 countries, but this was not to be.
Sustaining the early victories
The second wave of infections in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido offered a grim lesson to all nations considering their exit strategies against Covid-19.
The lifting of restrictions in Hokkaido was considered by experts to be premature, pressured by economic considerations and overconfidence in its declining infection rates
Early in 2020, Korea had the second highest number of infections outside China and it is only recently in the past few days have they registered single digit cases per day.
From May 6, South Korea will relax its social distancing rules allowing cinemas, museums and libraries to open. As part of the new normal, the public has been urged to order tickets online prior to entry. Soccer is to begin in empty stadiums and audience soon at 10-20% stadium capacity. Schools will resume the following week.
Into its 17th day without local transmission, Hong Kong is allowing gatherings up to 8 people in public spaces and restaurant. Weddings are capped at 50 guests at 8 per table. Cinemas are only allowed to be half full. Nightclubs, sauna and karaoke lounges continue to remain closed until further notice.
This trio of Asian nations have continued to be vigilant, very meticulous and measured in their relaxation of rules to avoid resurgence of Covid-19.
There is much that we as a nation, both leaders and the rakyat have to learn from their success stories.
Dr Musa Mohd Nordin is Chairman of the FIMA Advisory Council
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.