India currently has around 6,800 active cases and 210 Corona-virus related deaths, and it is not yet experiencing a flat curve, at least not anytime soon. Keeping this in view, PM Modi, in his latest video conference with all the floor leaders of the parliament has already hinted us about a likely extension of the lockdown period. In fact, the states of Odisha and Punjab have already declared the extension officially. Lockdown is, for sure a good strategy to contain and stop the spread of this deadly pandemic, but there are some countries out there, successfully tackling the threat in less-hurting (both to the economy and citizens) ways.
THE CHINESE ARE BOASTING, A BIT TOO MUCH INFACT!
The Chinese government does deserve credit for containing the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, if the official numbers were to be believed. That, however, is not a validation–neither of its authoritarian system nor of the extraordinary draconian measures employed to manage the pandemic. Indeed, there is a case to be made that it was the secretive, top-down system that made the outbreak so big and so bad that draconian measures became absolutely necessary to stop the virus’s further spread. If the Communist party leaders were less concerned about their careers & promotions and more about managing public health properly, they might not have waited a whole month before raising alarm.
The whole manner in which the Chinese government managed the COVID-19 outbreak is being favorably compared to the general mess that Europe and the United States have made of it so far. Now that China seems to have contained the initial outbreak, while Western countries are struggling with a massive surge in cases, Beijing’s propagandists and admirers have started asserting that the Chinese one-party, one-leader system is superior to a messy liberal democracy that is incapable of acting with the coherence, speed, and efficiency required to contain the pandemic.
But the fact that some countries have been quite successful in controlling the pandemic without implementing any of the “brutal measures” used by the Chinese, challenges the notion that a China-style lockdown is the only way to do it.
WHICH ARE THOSE COUNTRIES?
Several Asian governments have been relatively successful in controlling the first wave of the epidemic. South Korea’s strategy of mass, rapid testing and real-time information sharing turned out to be very effective. High social capital in Japan and the rule-of-law culture in Singapore enabled voluntary compliance and social distancing strategies. The emphasis might have been different, but all of these countries had well-thought-through strategies that were competently executed by the government machinery with cooperation from society.
But what was left out in the discussion is what a small Pacific Ocean island the size of Kerala has achieved in the COVID-19 fight. The reason? The island of Formosa, or Taiwan, is not a member of the WHO. No explicit data from Taiwan has been shown in the WHO daily briefings.
Taiwan — which has been kept out of the WHO by Beijing — used a combination of proactive surveillance, early screening, data-based control measures and mobile phones to limit the contagion to imported cases. Despite Taipei being one of the most vulnerable cities, due to its extensive ties with Wuhan, Taiwan has come out relatively unscathed.
HOW COULD TAIWAN DO IT?
It was hit hard by the 2003 SARS epidemic that claimed nearly 81 Taiwanese lives and affected another 671 which made Taiwan undertake serious preparations for a future epidemic. Thus, the country became hypervigilant once the first case of mysterious pneumonia was reported in Wuhan, China. On January 20, Taiwan established a Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), that was composed of medical and public health experts and headed by Vice President Dr. Chen Chien Jen, himself a well-respected epidemiologist, and led by Dr. Shi Chung Chen. It ensured that surveillance, contact tracing, and isolation/quarantine were implemented straight away.
Taiwan has managed to maintain a low case count through vigorous public health measures. There has not been any shut down of theaters, departmental stores, and, most importantly, schools although large gatherings are discouraged. Taiwan saw a surge of cases March, mostly among students or expatriates returning from Europe and North America. While it put additional strain on the system, a strict quarantine was executed. As of today, around 80,000 people are under isolation, who are monitored regularly with daily temperature and symptom checks, which are tracked by phone. If the GPS signal from a quarantined person’s phone indicates movement outside of a certain range, a follow-up phone call will be placed to confirm the person’s location.
Taiwan started COVID-19 RT-PCR tests in January. In the very beginning tests were applied to people returning from the epidemic area or symptomatic patients with relevant travel history. When there was a surge of case numbers in neighboring Asian countries, health authorities did a retrospective screening of patients reported as having a severe flu. This identified the first case without any travel history (it turned out that the patient was a cab driver who had given a ride to a passenger from Zhejiang, China, another epidemic region). The CECC swiftly amended the protocol for surveillance and testing based on the development of the epidemic. Most recently, any patients who report a loss of the sense of smell or taste were also mandated to be tested.
WHAT ELSE DID THEY DO?
In addition to requiring physical distancing of more than 1 meter in public, as of April 1, face masks were made mandatory when using public transportation. As early as January, Taiwan’s government ramped up the production of face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as critical medical supplies. Sophisticated plans have been mapped out to triage patients to better utilize negative pressure rooms in preparation for any surge of community-acquired patients.
As fighting the coronavirus is an all-hands-on-deck effort, the CECC lead the effort, ensuring effective coordination between various government agencies. An “epidemic fighting fleet” has been assembled by the Department of Transportation to pick up passengers returning from epidemic areas to facilitate contact tracing. Apps were developed to streamline face mask buying.
In addition to implementing strict public health measures, Taiwan is also striving to develop point of care diagnostics and antibody tests, hoping to advance the science as well as to better identify patients. The thriving biomedical industry in Taiwan playing its role by taking part in the development of therapeutics and vaccines. Silmitasertib (CX-4945) is one of the many promising possible cures that is being investigated right now.
Many nations are now angry at China and the World Health Organization for their mishandling of the Coronavirus. The efficiency and transparency of Taiwan’s response to the epidemic, in contrast, has made it a topic of renewed interest. The coronavirus crisis is showcasing Taiwan’s democratic system of governance on an international stage, the biggest soft power win for the country in years.
Taiwan is not only a beacon of democracy, but also a living proof that control of an emerging virus can be achieved through science, technology & democratic governance and that no draconian autocratic measures are required. If the Indian govt. was to try and implement some of these measures and resume close-to-normal day-to-day activities, at least in the less-effected zones, it might save our already slowing down economy from stalling.