[ANALYSIS] Coronavirus lessons from Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam

After South Korea captured the world’s attention at the recent Oscars, making history as its film, Parasite, became the first foreign language winner of best picture, this East Asian country is once more in the global news.

South Korea’s strategy to contain the novel coronavirus has sent valuable lessons and waves of hope to the international community. Among other world leaders, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, and Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Löfven, called South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to learn from their experience.

In sum, here’s how South Korea describes its approach, encapsulated in the acronym TRUST: transparency, robust screening and quarantine, unique but universally acceptable, strict control, and treatment. Each day, the government tests up to 19,000 people, using test kits manufactured by Korean companies.

Compare this to European countries: Germany tests 12,000 daily (but they are reported to be ramping this up), UK, 4,000 a day (but they're set to increase it), and France, 2,500 per day.

South Korea’s ambassador to the Philippines, Han Dong-man, told me in an email interview that 17 nations have already asked for the test kits through government channels and about 30 countries have directly contacted the Korean companies producing these kits to export them. The Philippines has also imported these kits. You can read the entire interview here.

Identifying clusters

Japan took a different approach from that of South Korea. It did not conduct widespread testing, although it had the resources. Rather, it targeted clusters where infections were most prevalent and focused its testing and treatment on these areas.

The biggest cluster – where the number of infections was highest – was  in Hokkaido, a popular area for foreign and local tourists.Thus, On February 28, Hokkaido was placed under a state of emergency The island did not experience a lockdown: schools were closed and residents were told not to congregate and not to leave their homes on weekends.

After 3 weeks, on March 19, Hokkaido breathed a big sigh of relief when the government lifted the state of emergency The number of new confirmed infections in Hokkaido decreased since the peak at the end of February, when up to 15 new coronavirus cases a day were reported, according to The Asahi Shimbun.  No new cases were reported on March 17 for the first time in about a month.

"We're now able to battle (the virus), as we've strengthened the test capability and bed capacity in hospitals," Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki said.

However, Japan's selective approach has come under criticism as a record one-day rise in new cases hit Tokyo on March 26. The city's governor warned of an "explosive spike" if residents did not work from home. 

Aggressive contact tracing, mass quarantines

Vietnam, which doesn’t enjoy the wealth of countries such as South Korea and Japan, has been responding to the pandemic in 2 ways: It focuses on quarantines and aggressive contact tracing. It isolates those who are infected and tracks down people they’ve been in contact with, up to “second- and third-hand contacts.” 

The Financial Times reported that Vietnam has become a “model in containing the disease in a country with limited resources but determined leadership.” 

Tran Dac Phu, a senior health official, was quoted as saying that “the important thing is, you need to know the number of people who might have come in contact with the disease, or returned from the pandemic areas, then perform tests on these people.”

Despite the financial constraints it faces, as of March 20, Vietnam had tested 15,637people, surpassing the record of the Philippines at 1,269.

Military mindset

We are in in this sorry state due mainly to the thinking of President Duterte, whose mind has been in the hinterland of command and control – lockdown, emergency powers, checkpoints, curfew – and eons away from the heartland of a strategic public health response.

Thankfully, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia has spoken up and called for “widespread testing” and, in a report, provided detailed measures to mitigate the pandemic’s socio-economic impact.

Moreover, the Bayanihan Law (Republic Act 11469), which gives the President emergency powers to contain the pandemic, is surprisingly substantial on taking measures such as expediting testing kits, facilitating prompt testing and "compulsory and immediate isolation and treatment of patients." 

Thus, I find a huge disconnect between what the law says and what the President does. He tasked a former military man, Gen. Carlito Galvez, to implement the strategy. It sends the wrong message that the government's response is skewed towards security rather than public health. 

If we were to seriously learn lessons from other countries' experiences, then the President needs to shift his mindset. – Rappler.com