COVID-19’s origins maybe in Asia but its breaking point has been in the West

Geographic laws are simple: the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. But yet in the geopolitical imagination of countries, at least in the last two hundred years or so, from technological innovation to Westphalian sovereignty and to liberal democratic norms, all have allegedly flown from the West to the East.

There has been a perception of “utopianism” around western democracies, that sense of “first worldness” that gets codified with nations in Western Europe and North America. These countries have long been seen as the paragon of a developed society; on the back of strong foundations in their economies through robust infrastructure, allegedly quality healthcare and more often than not exercising universal suffrage, largely eschewing from demagoguery and dictatorship in a post-World War II period.

These countries have far from seen as the origins of plagues and pandemics. But yet COVID-19 has mercilessly ripped through vulnerable fissures in healthcare across Spain, Italy, Germany, France, the UK and of course, the United States. The juxtaposition between the death toll in Asia and the West as well as government response teams has been stark.

There has been a perception of “utopianism” around western democracies, that sense of “first worldness” that gets codified with nations in Western Europe and North America.

US President Donald Trump has been acerbic in his remarks as he tries to deflect some of the criticism of his administration and tries to paint COVID-19 as a Chinese crisis. Be that as it may, but by and large it has been the Asian countries that have handled the crisis much more effectively.

As the latest BowerGroupAsia’s COVID-19 tracker shows, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, all have had zero COVID-19 deaths. They’re “emerging markets,” far from their neighbouring Singapore’s digital and healthcare sophistication. Their proximity to China, where the outbreak was first recorded, put them in the crosshairs of the coronavirus.

Vietnam has reported stellar numbers in recoveries and zero deaths despite a long border with China and a large population of just under 100 million people, with just over 300 reported COVID-19 cases.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has complimented the efforts of authorities and the people to control the spread. Vietnam is now in a good position to ease up controls. The country reacted swiftly when the first virus case of the COVID-19 was confirmed in late January from a returning passenger from Wuhan.

The SARS epidemic had marred and scarred a lot of Asian countries when it broke out in 2003. Taiwan’s health authorities were prepared for emergency responses in the event of a deja vu.

Vietnam’s emergency plan epitomised a “do things now, before they become urgent” approach, something that its western counterparts didn’t do. In terms of proximity vulnerability, Taiwan was at risk of being one of the most infected, given the voluminous travel between mainland China and Taiwan. Yet, the island territory stands out for its response to the pandemic, leveraging on big data tools in its public health toolkits.

The SARS epidemic had marred and scarred a lot of Asian countries when it broke out in 2003. Taiwan’s health authorities were prepared for emergency responses in the event of a deja vu. They began swift measures of early contact tracing, selective mask imports and managing key medical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) supplies.

Taiwan has many valuable lessons to impart, but ironically, geopolitical imbroglios preclude Taiwan’s participation from the World Health Organisation (WHO). If flattening the curve is this crisis’ version of ‘keep calm and carry on,’ then South Korea has the mantle to compose the tune and then put its name to the posters. At one point, South Korea was one of the four most infected countries along with China, Italy and Iran, however within three weeks, through effective contact tracing, the country had flattened the curve and prevented a second wave without major lockdowns.

The sobriquet of regional leader normally goes to Singapore, for its economic supremacy, robust domestic institutions and its efficacy in handling a crisis.

Just behind South Korea is Malaysia, which has about 200 cases per million people. According to a scientist with EcoHealth Alliance in Malaysia, the country was responding to COVID-19 well as health authorities, particularly Dr. Noor Hisham bin Abdullah, the Director-General of Health, has been keeping the public apprised through daily briefings. Malaysia currently has under 8,000 cases and the death rate on most days stands at either one, two or zero (currently under 120 overall). Malaysia through its Movement Control Order (MCO) and in some cases, the Enhanced Movement Control Order (EMCO) for infected clusters, has been able to effectively quarantine and isolate vulnerable sections of the population.

However, the sobriquet of regional leader normally goes to Singapore, for its economic supremacy, robust domestic institutions and its efficacy in handling a crisis. As the earliest cases started sprouting with tourists coming in from mainland China during the auspicious Lunar New Year, the global community looked towards Singapore to effectively combat and nullify the virus.

Apart from the efficacy of its institution, the city state had been prepared for an outbreak since SARS ravaged across Asia two decades earlier, claiming 33 lives in Singapore. As Singapore implemented strict controls, contract tracing, limited inbound arrivals, the then “epidemic” looked under control with no deaths recorded for the longest time.

But now with 23 deaths recorded, and over 10,000 people infected, Singapore is currently facing an upswing in the number of new cases, initially through imported cases, but as now reported, more through local transmissions. However, Singapore has implemented firm “circuit breaker” measures to restrict movement and preclude gatherings, close non-essential business, and implemented strict work-from-home orders.

Japan was one of the first countries outside of China to document a case of the disease as early as 16 January.

Another mixed report card has been Japan. The country was one of the first outside of China to document a case of the disease as early as 16 January. The country’s capital Tokyo, which would have played host to the 2020 Olympics, was looking forward to welcoming international contingents for the sporting spectacle. Not just for the honour of playing hosts, but the Olympics were much needed for Japan to avoid a recession. Those problems have now been compounded with both the cancellation of the games and the COVID-19 conundrum.

Japan showed it had the cases under control, and up until late March, was hoping to pull off a herculean task of convincing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the global community that by July normalcy would resume and the games could go ahead. But a sudden spike in cases put all the optimism on hold.

The infected cruise ship Diamond Princess which docked on Japanese shores was one of the earliest and biggest clusters. It brought Japan into the spotlight, and some criticism of a botched quarantine which led to an increase in cases. Japan, which enacted a state of emergency as cases soared, has also been quick to deal with an anticipated second and third wave.

Since Japan recorded its first case in early January, less than a thousand people have died across the country of 126 million people. To put that into perspective, that is fewer deaths in one day in New York City during the peak of the outbreak.

Migrant labour and daily wage earners remain the worst affected, as COVID-19 has exacerbated the income inequality issue globally. But India had relatively managed to keep the cases restricted in the first few weeks, earlier seen as a miracle.

On 14 May, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lifted the state of emergency in 39 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and announced on 25 May that the state of emergency was over and the pandemic crisis was over in Japan. However, despite this, the Japanese government hasn’t received the same praise from its public such as in the case of South Korea. In fact, Prime Minister Abe’s popularity rating has since plummeted.

Meanwhile, India remained a blackbox. When the virus spread, and social distancing became a norm, it exacerbated the constraints for a densely populated country where a large section of the demographic cannot self-isolate. Unlike Beijing, New Delhi can’t exercise the same form of tight controls and neither does it have the technological surveillance capabilities to monitor more than a billion people.

Migrant labour and daily wage earners remain the worst affected, as COVID-19 has exacerbated the income inequality issue globally. But India had relatively managed to keep the cases restricted in the first few weeks, earlier seen as a miracle. The government earned praise for its herculean undertaking of a nationwide lockdown and strict quarantine measures, something that was hard to fathom given the voluminous population, the vulnerable sections of society and stronger need for self-discipline from its citizens. While bureaucratic entanglements are well noted, the central and state governments coalesced on key measures.

However, a sudden spike of cases has sent the curve spiraling upwards, with Maharashtra becoming the epicentre. It remains to be seen if India has hit its peak, as the country crossed China’s death toll. A pre-COVID-19 world spoke about the Asian century, a testimony to burgeoning economies of India, China and Southeast Asia. That story still remains even if it’s on a momentary pause, but the COVID-19 world has shown that this is also the story of Asian resilience.

A journalist by profession. He writes about business & finance, geopolitics, sports & tech news. He is a TEDx & Toastmasters speaker. Follow him @Akshobh

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