In Brief

Can the U.S. Emulate Asia’s Coronavirus Response?

As the coronavirus outbreak worsens, the U.S. government should learn from initial responses in Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan.

As the United States, the United Kingdom, and European nations face rising tolls from the coronavirus pandemic, their slow, often confused responses have been widely criticized. These countries could learn from Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, which have adopted highly effective measures to battle the virus.

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The data show the difference. Ten days after the United States and Italy reported their one hundredth confirmed cases of coronavirus, Italy had over five thousand cases and the United States over two thousand. Ten days after Singapore reported its one hundredth confirmed case, it had not yet reached two hundred. Additionally, it has reported no deaths.

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Singapore has some unique qualities. It is a rich city-state with a small landmass, and its technocratic government has normalized the mass collection of personal data. Yet Singapore offers universal lessons. In January, as the coronavirus spread in China, Singaporean leaders established a crisis team and prepared for the threat to the city-state, which has close economic links with China. Officials began a massive public information campaign, similar to its effective campaigns to fight diseases such as dengue fever. This has included aggressive promotion of social distancing. It quickly placed bans on travelers from China, started contact tracing for infected people, and tested anyone with coronavirus symptoms.

A teacher stands before several students in her classroom. Each of the students have dividers on their desks to separate them from other students.
Students use desk dividers as a measure against the coronavirus at a Taipei elementary school. Ann Wang/Reuters

Similar measures have been taken by Hong Kong and Taiwan, which also have close ties to China and remember the 2002–03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which was made much worse by initial inaction. After the coronavirus emerged in China, Taiwan implemented crisis plans it developed after SARS, including quickly preparing hospitals, starting intensive tracking efforts, and making tests easily available. Taiwan still has fewer than one hundred cases and just one death. Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, also acted rapidly, closing schools and enforcing social distancing beginning in January. Today, Hong Kong has fewer than two hundred confirmed cases, though it potentially faces additional cases from people returning from abroad.

South Korea, a far more populous place than those already mentioned, has also made impressive strides. It ramped up testing, as the government empowered Korean companies to mass-produce tests. South Korea has carried out the most tests per capita of any country studied, testing ten thousand people on average per day. Its testing outreach program includes home visits for people suspected of having contact with sick patients. Through such measures, South Korea seems to have flattened the curve of its outbreak.

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China, on the other hand, initially suppressed information about the virus, allowing it to spread from the city of Wuhan. Beijing silenced medical workers and covered up the extent of the danger, and only later pivoted to enforce what was effectively a nationwide quarantine. This seems to have stemmed the spread, at least for now. But China’s draconian approach, which stifled nearly all economic and social life, could be difficult to implement elsewhere.

Translating to a U.S. Response

Some of these strategies will not be easy to replicate in the United States. Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan offer universal health coverage, achieving some of the best health outcomes in the world and far outpacing those of the United States. The United States, meanwhile, has more than twenty-seven million uninsured people, and many more underinsured. It is also a much bigger country and has a decentralized political system, which makes it harder to coordinate a national response. Americans would likely resist the government sharing information about infected people online—a tactic Singapore is using to help its residents avoid those who have the virus.

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The United States has already lost its chance to act quickly, as places such as Taiwan did. After the virus emerged in China, the U.S. government had weeks to prepare for a severe outbreak, yet did not stockpile testing kits and was slow to develop a coordinated response.

Still, clear lessons can be learned from Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Their leaders have provided usable public information, whereas Washington failed for weeks to effectively educate Americans about the virus. The Singapore government’s transparency has reassured the population, and there has been far less of a sense of panic there than in countries such as Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Media outlets in these Asian states and territories have generally not downplayed the threat or promoted conspiracy theories about the virus. And their governments have empowered the private sector to create tests, a step the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is belatedly taking. They have also poured resources into nationwide public information campaigns and have made free testing almost universally available. If the United States can match their efforts, it could join them in flattening the curve.

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