Across the region, many countries and cities that previously had the coronavirus largely under control are seeing an increase in infections.
Japan’s daily workload hit its highest level since the start of the pandemic last week, surpassing 2,000 for five consecutive days.
In South Korea, daily infections also fell from a relative lull in late September and October to more than 300, the highest since late August.
Hong Kong, meanwhile, declared its “fourth wave” of coronavirus infections, after several isolated clusters emerged. His daily cases – still in single digits at the start of November – have exploded over the past week to reach 80 on Tuesday.
On Saturday, the number of cases in the United States surpassed 12 million, an increase of more than a million cases in less than a week. In Europe, the number of daily cases has fallen from its peak in early November, but remains well above 100,000.
To put it in perspective, with a population of around 10 million, the South Korean capital of Seoul reported 382 new cases of Covid-19 on Tuesday, while Los Angeles County reported 3,692 cases – by 10 times the daily increase in Seoul.
Despite their relatively small increase in the number of infections, Asian governments are taking no risks in their efforts to curb epidemics.
In China, the response has been particularly swift and drastic. On Sunday evening, Shanghai Pudong International Airport carried out a sudden test in a parking garage on more than 17,000 staff, following a few cases among handlers. In Tianjin, authorities tested 2.6 million residents in three days after reporting five locally transmitted cases. And in Inner Mongolia, a city on the border with Russia has been partially locked down and all of its residents have been tested for just two local infections.
Due to the increase in the number of cases in Hong Kong, the much anticipated Hong Kong-Singapore “air transport bubble” has been postponed – less than 24 hours before its launch. The program is said to have allowed quarantine-free air travel between the two Asian hubs, with the aim of boosting business travel and tourism.
South Korea declared an “emergency period” in Seoul on Monday until the end of the year. Public transport capacity was reduced by 20% after 10 p.m. and gatherings of more than 10 people banned. The city will also perform regular coronavirus tests on some 40,000 nursing hospital and daycare workers and users.
The measures come after a series of new restrictions were announced for Seoul on Sunday, including mandatory masks indoors and the closure of entertainment facilities such as clubs. Restaurants are only allowed to make deliveries and take out after 9 p.m., gatherings will be limited to 100 people, and schools must operate at one-third of their capacity.
In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced last week that the country was on “high alert” after reporting a record number of daily infections. It also halted the government’s travel and restaurant promotion program in coronavirus-sensitive areas to curb other infections.
In the United States and Europe, where daily cases multiply by the tens of thousands, contact tracing not only seems impossible, but futile. The virus is so widespread that governments have few tools left to tackle epidemics other than re-imposing lockdowns – which have sparked backlash and protests.
Premature relaxation of restrictions
But it’s not just the measures that are currently being introduced that matter. Asia’s comparative success in containing the coronavirus is the result of several months of consistent policies, deep implementation and public cooperation.
Throughout the relative respite from infections in the summer, countries in Asia have kept their borders closed, and in many places, the public continued to wear masks and maintain their social distances.
In Europe, after months of initial lockdowns, restrictions have been relaxed and tourists have flocked to summer vacation. The visitors have been accused both of causing an increase in the number of cases in countries largely untouched by the first wave, such as Greece and Croatia, and of bringing the virus back to their own countries.
David Nabarro, a Covid-19 Special Envoy for the World Health Organization (WHO), said unlike Europe, Asia has not eased restrictions prematurely.
“People are fully engaged, they adopt behaviors that make it difficult for the virus. They keep their distance, wear masks, isolate themselves when they are sick, wash their hands and surfaces. They protect the groups most at risk, ”he said in an interview with Swiss newspapers, according to Reuters.
“You have to wait until the number of cases is low and stay low,” he said, calling Europe’s reaction “incomplete”.
He warned that Europe could still see a third wave of infections in early 2021, if governments repeat the failure to do what is necessary to prevent the second wave of infections.
“They failed to build the necessary infrastructure during the summer months, after mastering the first wave,” Nabarro said.
“Now we have the second wave. If they don’t build the necessary infrastructure, we’ll have a third wave early next year. “
Reuters contributed to the reporting.