Asian countries faced with late-year spikes in COVID-19 are capping the outbreaks and keeping economies on track by leveraging earlier experience, namely quick control measures and public compliance, sources in the affected spots say.
Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam have reported increases since mid-November as weather cools, citizens fly home from more heavily infected countries in the West, or both. Numbers had fallen in all six by mid-year after outbreaks in the first half.
Health officials are now stepping up controls without shuttering businesses in most cases or ordering people to stay home. They're still leaning heavily on control measures from earlier in the year when COVID-19 first appeared, catching Asia by surprise as the first place to feel an impact. Those measures include quarantining sick people, tracing their contacts and mandating bigger social distances in public. International borders remain shut to tourists.
“The strategy behind these successes is based on the same basic factors: prioritizing health above economic concerns, producing excellent public communications, enforcing early border controls and mandating behavior change,” the Lowy Institute research group in Australia says in an analysis of Southeast Asia’s anti-pandemic measures. “These things work.”
People in the region habitually comply with the rules, even where no one’s on hand to enforce them, as a way to stay healthy, locals say. Collective wellbeing is prioritized over individual liberty.
“If someone in your family just (traveled) somewhere, then all of your neighbors will know, and if something happens to you, the neighbors themselves will tell about your situation to the police [first responders] or to the CDC,” said Phuong Hong, 40, a Ho Chi Minh City dweller who works in the Vietnamese hotel sector.
Despite a monthly pay cut equal to 3.5 days of work as the travel industry suffers from Vietnam’s border closures, she lauds the government for “taking action very fast.” Vietnam ended its lockdown in April.
Vietnam has 1,366 cases overall but reported rare daily infection totals above 20 twice in November. Domestic media point to a Vietnam Airlines flight attendant who violated home quarantine after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City on November 14 from Japan. His case sparked an inquiry by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc after three others got sick.
In Taiwan, the Central Epidemic Command Center announced that from December 1 everyone in the malls, recreation halls and certain schools must wear facemasks. So many people were already using masks in those venues, plus a lot of others, that habits barely changed last week.
Taiwan officials have reported 716 cases total including two days in December with more than 20 apiece, all of which the government calls “imported” from abroad. Its border closure and strict contract tracing rules haven’t wavered since taking effect in March.
Economically crucial export manufacturing continues in Taiwan and Vietnam with no disruption.
In Malaysia, citizens are working with the government to stave off another lockdown like the March-through-June one, said Ibrahim Suffian, program director with the polling group Merdeka Center in Kuala Lumpur. The “gravity is seen as high” due to constant media coverage, he said.
Public support for the government's efforts has ranged from 65% to 80% most of the year and about 90% of Malaysians follow disease-control orders, he said.
Large gatherings and local travel have been blamed for Malaysia’s spike, which began in October and has settled since then at 1,000 to 1,200 new cases daily. Now there’s debate on how to release more stimulus money as the number of under-employed people becomes more obvious, particularly in hospitality, Suffian said.
“I think the wider impact is on the economy and I think that’s going to be felt for a while, so in the recent weeks the discussion has been what stimulus can the government provide,” he said.
In the cooler regions of Asia, Japan’s daily caseload jumped above 2,000 per day in late November and hovers now between that level and 2,500. Officials there trace contacts in response to outbreak clusters, and Japanese are known for mass compliance with health advice.
South Korea’s coronavirus caseloads began topping 500 per day in late November for the first time since March. Last month Korean authorities were considering stronger social distancing curbs after easing them a month earlier to help the economy.
In Hong Kong, numbers began climbing from November 19 to between 50 and 100 or more per day. Nearly 7,000 have been infected since the start of the global outbreak. The Hong Kong government suspended in-person primary school classes last month and lets restaurants seat parties of only one or two people.
Hong Kong inhabitants are used to the government’s control measures, though they want more clarity each time they change and ways to plan ahead, said Adam Wielowieyski, a 40-year-old Briton who works at the territory's stock exchange.
“People generally are sort of willing to try and make this work," he said. "I don’t know of anyone who’s actively going out and flouting rules and restrictions. People are generally just finding ways to comply, but obviously it is sort of frustrating."