Coronavirus Testing Is the Way to Avoid European-Style Confinement

Coronavirus test
COVID-19 testing | Image credit: Flickr-Governor Tom Wolf | CC BY 2.0

South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, all in the immediate vicinity of China, have, so far, been able to avert the mass spread of coronavirus among their populations.

They have done so while managing to avoid draconian measures like confining their populations, as has happened in Europe. The social and economic consequences for countries that avoid confinement and paralysis will be reduced. How can this be achieved?

The crucial importance of testing has been shown in Italy, currently the worst-affected European country. Scientists at the University of Padua tested all 3,300 inhabitants in the small northern town of Vò, whether they had symptoms or not. The town already had 90 cases of coronavirus when the testing started on March 6.

The scientists were able to identify and track down the people who have coronavirus without realising it, as they have no symptoms. These people were found to be the main vectors of transmission. As of March 19, there have been no new cases in Vò since the study.

In France, where I live in exile from my native Cambodia, the measures imposed by President Emmanuel Macron have been consistent and clearly communicated. Schools are closed and people are now only allowed to go out to buy food, medicine or to exercise alone. The population has accepted the constraints calmly, and people now keep at least a metre away from each other as they queue to buy food.

France has a highly developed healthcare system, but even here, questions have been raised as to whether sufficient numbers of tests are being carried out. South Korea has held back coronavirus without needing to impose France’s harsh restrictions. The key is testing, backed by a strong health system.

Decisive Action

Over a quarter of a million people in South Korea, one of the hardest-hit countries in the pandemic’s early stages, have been tested for the virus. The country has capacity to test 20,000 people a day at more than 600 nationwide sites, and a strong health system means that this is done for free.  The transparency that the government has shown has promoted civic awareness and voluntary cooperation.

As of March 9, South Korea had carried out 4,099 tests per million people – more than any country in the world except Bahrain. Hong Kong has the world’s third-best testing rate, with 2,134 tests per million people.  At March 18, Hong Kong had 181 confirmed cases, a remarkable record given that it adjoins mainland China. The city has taken transparency to a new level by publishing the addresses of buildings that have confirmed cases.

Though lagging behind in terms of tests executed, Japan has shown good preparation by building up its capacity and is on course to be able to carry out 8,000 tests per day by the end of the month. Britain has also lagged behind in terms of preparation and testing, initially seeming to embrace the idea that allowing the virus to spread would lead to “herd immunity” developing among the population. School closures were delayed and only take effect on March 19. Immunity might work for the common flu, but coronavirus is many times more lethal.

Even confinement may now not be enough to prevent a severe increase in the number of British cases. The condition of the country’s health service makes this especially alarming. According to the OECD, the UK has only 2.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people, one of the lowest levels in Europe. That compares with 13 beds in Japan, 12.3 in South Korea, eight in Germany and six in France.

The Ostrich Approach

China and Cambodia have both sought to hide the reality of coronavirus from their people and from the world. It is now believed that the first case of coronavirus in China may have been as early as November 17. President Xi Jinping did not publicly comment on the virus until January 20. It has been reported that he knew about it, and was directing the Chinese response, as early as January 7.

As the world now knows, days and hours count in combatting the virus’s spread. This urge to deny and delay was repeated in Cambodia by Beijing’s over-eager ally, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has variously denied that the virus is dangerous or that it could ever reach Cambodia. 

Levels of planning, reactivity and responsibility among leaders are crucial for implementing appropriate public health policies. Hun Sen has distinguished himself by his irresponsibility in rejecting even the notion of prevention. The World Health Organization on March 17 identified Southeast Asia as an area where aggressive measures are urgently needed to prevent community spread.

The WHO has likened failure to test for coronavirus with fighting a fire while eyes are closed. Cambodia’s failure to build up its public health system means that the country also has its hands tied behind its back. The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated how far national priorities have drifted from reality. The relative success achieved in South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan rests on strong public health systems, strengthened on the back of previous outbreaks of illnesses such as SARS and MERS. 

These health systems have used the lessons learned to make transparent diagnoses on a mass scale possible. Cambodia and other countries that have been slow to test need to start learning too.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.