The global Covid-19 divide: As the West moves, Asia keeps the virus away

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As an increase in coronavirus infections forces U.S. states and European countries to close bars, open field hospitals, and limit social gatherings to small groups of people, these measures are becoming distant memories in a big way. part of Asia.

For months now, life in Asia, where the virus first appeared, has mostly returned to normal. With infections at low levels, bars and restaurants are bustling, metro trains are crowded, and live concerts and spectator sports have resumed.

While China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong together have recorded less than 1,000 cases per day since September, the United States alone was reporting more than 56,000 cases per day on average as of Monday, the number highest since early August. . Europe – where spring closures have succeeded in reducing infections to a trickle – is now experiencing a second wave, with an average of 88,000 cases per day on Monday, more than ever before.

About a third of the world’s population resides in East Asia and Southeast Asia, but the densely populated region accounts for less than a fifth of the 1.1 million deaths from Covid-19 worldwide. Europe and the United States account for almost half.

“If you can control the virus, you can recover 95% of your life,” says Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health. “In the US and in Europe we wanted our lives back, so we acted like the virus was under control. In Asia, they were not in denial. They understood that they could get their lives back if they followed certain precautions.

The world, indeed, is divided: While Asian countries, which acted quickly to contain their epidemics from the start, have persisted in their fight against the virus, growing fatigue from the pandemic in the United States and Europe has leads to relaxed attitudes about social distancing that complicate efforts to control a resurgence. As cases increase, Western governments are grappling with testing shortages and contact tracing becomes ineffective. Many in the West are placing their hopes in a vaccine to get life back to normal.

Asia, on the other hand, succeeded in removing the virus largely without the national lockdowns that crippled Western economies in the spring. Governments have put in place aggressive contact tracing efforts, quarantine programs to isolate those infected, and strict international travel requirements. Cultural differences, consistent messaging, and the experience of SARS and MERS outbreaks have led to more widespread acceptance of practices such as wearing face masks and, in some places, more intrusive government intervention.

“Independent actions will have consequences for the health of others, which is highly valued in most Asian societies,” says Teo Yik-Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore. “The advice is very consistent. It is how countries have implemented and applied this advice that is different. Asians were more adept at taking advice and making the necessary rules. ”

The more successful management of the pandemic in Asia has led to better economic performance. The International Monetary Fund has projected China’s economy to grow 1.9 percent in 2020, which would make it the only major global economy to grow this year amid the pandemic. The US economy is expected to contract 4.3%, while the Eurozone is expected to contract 8.3%.

Although daily infections in East Asia are at a low level, people there are still as or more likely than Europeans or Americans to wear face masks and disinfect their hands, recent polls show from Imperial College London and YouGov. Asians are also more likely to fear infection, with 80% of South Koreans saying they were afraid of catching the virus last month, compared to 58% of Americans and 45% of Spaniards.

“It’s uncomfortable and tiring to wear a mask all the time, even inside the office, but I’d rather make sacrifices than see explosive cases like in Europe or America,” Kim Ye-joo said, a 26-year-old office worker in Seoul. “We wear masks in the subway and outside, but what’s the point in keeping infections low if restrictions remain because other countries cannot control them?”

A waiter closes a bar terrace in Lille, northern France. Tourists and young people are the main drivers of the resurgence of infections in Europe, with the virus circulating widely in bars, nightclubs and seaside destinations.

Photo:
Michel Spingler / Associated Press

Francesco Wu, an Italian-Chinese restaurateur based in Milan, says culture helps explain the different popular attitudes in East and West.

“We’re used to having so many freedoms here – and that’s a good thing,” says Wu, 39, who grew up in Italy. “But we’re not that used to discipline, to self-sacrifice. If we are locked in our homes for a month, we get restless, we can’t take it anymore.

Asian governments have prevented infections from spreading widely as well through surveillance tactics implemented early on. In South Korea, investigators are examining smartphone data, credit card records and CCTV footage to trace close contacts of those infected. People should scan QR codes with their phones when they enter nightclubs, karaoke bars or cinemas, to make it easier to trace them in the event of an outbreak. In recent weeks, all but 20% of the infection routes have been tracked down by South Korean health officials.

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Although successful, these measures have drawn criticism over privacy breaches and have not been replicated in the West. Voluntary tracking apps introduced in parts of Europe, for example, have not been widely used.

Clusters of infections have been occurring across Asia as people return to work and school. But rather than impose strict lockdowns, many Asian countries have tightened social distancing guidelines and extended testing when infections increased.

The limited circulation of the virus has enabled health authorities to more effectively track close contacts of carriers of the virus and organize large-scale responses even to small outbreaks. After the discovery of 12 cases linked to a hospital in the Chinese city of Qingdao, authorities last week began testing all nine million residents of the city.

South Korea reported one of the first major coronavirus outbreaks outside of China, but kept infections low compared to US WSJ’s Dasl Yoon shows how smartphones have become one of the most powerful weapons most effective countries against the pandemic. Photo: Denis Bosnic for The Wall Street Journal (originally published July 16, 2020)

When a large cluster linked to a church and a rally emerged in South Korea in August, the government responded by closing sports stadiums, banning gatherings of more than 10 people, and forcing schools in the metro area. from Seoul to return to online learning. Cases peaked at 441 new infections a day in late August, and restrictions have since been lifted.

Strict quarantine rules across Asia have made a big difference. Rather than isolating themselves at home like in the United States and Europe, virus carriers are usually transferred to government-run facilities, even if they have mild or no symptoms. In countries like Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore, close contacts of those infected must also remain in quarantine facilities.

In Western countries, compliance with quarantine rules has been inconsistent. In the UK, for example, people with symptoms of Covid-19 and those living with them are advised to stay home for 14 days. But a study by researchers at King’s College London published last month found little public adherence to the rules, with around three-quarters of participants surveyed saying they had left their homes in the previous 24 hours.

Asian countries have also had much tougher travel restrictions. Visitors are usually required to test for the virus upon arrival. Places such as Hong Kong, South Korea and New Zealand also require a two-week government-monitored quarantine.

In Asia-Pacific, 61% of countries or territories remain completely closed to foreign tourists, according to a report by the World Tourism Organization.

A bar area in Beijing. The International Monetary Fund expects China to be the only major global economy to grow this year amid the pandemic.

Photo:
nicolas asfouri / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

When infection rates plummeted earlier this year, European governments moved quickly to reopen the continent’s borders and encouraged tourism during the summer. Tourists and young people were the main contributors to the infection, with the virus circulating widely in bars, nightclubs and beach vacation destinations.

Thanks to improved detection, most people infected in the summer had mild or no symptoms. But as cases increase, so do hospitalizations and deaths.

“In Europe, during the summer, there was this idea of ​​the economy versus public health, so we had to open up a lot more to help tourism. Asia didn’t do that, ”says Helena Legido-Quigley, professor of public health at the University of Singapore currently based in Barcelona. “It’s neither: you don’t have to choose between public health and the economy.”

Despite the growing number of infections, many people in the West are fed up with restrictions on their social lives and say they would rather risk catching the virus than stop seeing family and friends.

“I’m not at all afraid of the virus,” said Antonio López, an 80-year-old resident of a retirement home for the elderly on the outskirts of Barcelona who has recently started tracing his family members for walks. “And I missed my son a lot.”

Write to Margherita Stancati à [email protected] and Dasl Yoon at [email protected]

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