East Asia – Role Model for Covid-19

29 May, 2020

Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan deserve praise for fighting Covid-19.

While Singapore and South Korea were hit with a second outbreak, their robust containment measures have kicked back in to stop rapid spread of the virus once more. As New Zealand ponders how to prepare for a future pandemic, it should look to East Asia.

Vietnam and Hong Kong also showed early success against the coronavirus, but the New Zealand Government has focused its attention on those first three countries.

The common factor for their success was their experience with the SARS pandemic in 2003 and MERS in 2015. They built better epidemiological and quarantine systems along with border controls, high-level diagnostic testing and rapid contact tracing capacities. They also regularly disinfect public spaces and encourage the public use of masks.

In the last few weeks, another outbreak of Covid-19 makes it appear Singapore’s performance was a complete failure, but it was not. These new community cases constitute only 7% of the total count and more accurately reflect human error in monitoring a handful of migrant dormitories than a systemic failure of the city-state’s response plans.

Further north, South Korea recovered quickly from an initial outbreak in March. The government’s ‘smart-city data hub’ allowed it to quickly locate cases again after a second outbreak occurred in Seoul bars. So far, a total of 1982 possible cases have been rapidly traced by this system, keeping the average number of fresh daily cases low at 23.

Stanford University’s Jason Wang said Taiwan’s response was among the best in the world. Its timely border controls for flights coming from China began on December 31, 2019 – a full month before other nations thought about similar controls. By March 20, Taiwan only had 27 new cases. Once again, a digital surveillance system was critical in tracking down and isolating individuals with the virus.

New Zealand’s Covid-19 containment performance was impressive. But, as Kiwi epidemiologists have emphasised, its contact tracing system still has plenty of room for improvement. As South Korea and Singapore have shown, there is still a real risk of a second outbreak from even one new superspreader.

That’s why it is an imperative that New Zealand take this opportunity to repair and prepare its contact tracing capacity to ensure the country holds onto its hard-won gains. Those three East Asian states offer plenty of great examples to get this done.

The unexpected winner of Covid-19 – China

9 April, 2020

Two centuries ago, Napoleon Bonaparte called China a sleeping lion and advised to “let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Bonaparte’s prophecies are relevant again today. The lion is now awake and she is becoming increasingly assertive.

Early in the Covid-19 crisis, there was a view that China would be weakened by it. Some even pondered the downfall of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. With the Hong Kong revolts, the death of Wuhan’s whistle-blower Dr Lee Wenliang, the looming global recession and economic confidence deteriorating within China, those predictions were not surprising.

But the coronavirus may just be a hiccup and Mr Xi’s government appears to have regained its domestic legitimacy. Instead of falling victim to the virus, the party could be deemed the victor in the international system. The losers seem to be the United States and the wider liberal international order. The balance of power has shifted in favour of China.

China covered up the origins of the virus to the World Health Organisation. As a result, Western countries such as the US, Spain, Italy and Germany have far more cases and deaths than China.

China is using the crisis to extend its geopolitical reach. In the last few weeks, it has sent additional masks and medical supplies to help the Italians and French. As President Xi pledges more support to Europe, he is using it to further legitimise his ambitious $1.4 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.

The virus has become useful for Beijing to add an element of soft power, which is necessary to become the so-called benevolent global force. By repairing the serious reputational damage caused to it by the pandemic, China is framing itself as a responsible power.

The United States led the international system since the end of the Second World War, but under President Donald Trump, its diplomatic efforts have changed tack and are now more nationally focused. China, by contrast, appears increasingly determined to fill that global leadership void.

Great power politics is still a ruthless business in the international system, and Covid-19 has resulted in a new phase of security competition between the US and China. Covid-19 unsettled the balance of power in a way few would have predicted just a few months ago.