How Experience Has Translated into Preparation: Combatting COVID-19

By: Adam Berns 

The United States has completed more COVID-19 tests than any country, a fact that has been touted by some politicians and public health officials in the United States to show our supremacy in fighting the virus. However, in reality, many countries are way ahead in this fight. While the United States has completely transformed how it deals with pandemics and infectious diseases, they are lagging behind on testing and mitigation of the disease, specifically compared to the developed nations of Eastern Asia. Countries such as Taiwan and Singapore and massive cities like Hong Kong have been able to control the spread of the novel coronavirus and the mortality that follows. 

Whether it be widespread testing, contact tracing, or strict governmental measures restricting the movement of people, these countries’ responses have been at the forefront of the pandemic. South Korea moved extremely fast in confronting the disease. When South Korea’s government and public health system was in full swing fighting the spread of COVID-19 it was producing 100,000 test kits a day. The per capita rate of testing is significantly higher than that of the US and other Western nations. This high rate of testing also allows the government to understand the infection and mortality rate of the virus. South Korea has been using contact tracing to map where infected patients have traveled to explore where other infections may occur. The citizens of South Korea and in many other Eastern Asian nations are constantly sacrificing their liberty and privacy for the advancement and benefit of public health, which is rooted in a history of dealing with pandemics. South Korea, Singapore, and China are all using apps and software to track patients and mark people as infected and classify their risk of contagion. 

The question many people are asking is why and how are these countries so prepared? The answer is experience. The Eastern global community as a whole has been affected by epidemics in years past that have not touched Western shores, and so the preparation for infectious diseases has been incredibly different across the Eastern and Western world. SARS and MERS heavily affected Eastern Asian countries and cities so the governments have built up a strong infrastructure to fight public health issues, especially in regard to infectious diseases. Eastern Asian countries have set up systems and networks to find, isolate, and track infected patients in epidemics following the SARS epidemic in 2002. Even Canada, which was the hardest hit country outside of Asia during the 2002 SARS epidemic took significant measures to change their public health system to better prepare for pandemics. The pace at which these countries have mobilized to prevent the disease from taking over their country showed how the experience of dealing with epidemics played into their response during the beginning of this pandemic. While governments have been preparing for escalated infectious diseases, the people of these countries and cities have taken their own precautions as well. While the government in Hong Kong was figuring out the best way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the citizens in fear of what they had seen in the past and what was to come ahead began to take serious precautionary steps to ensure they would not be infected or spread the disease to others. 

The preparation of the countries and cities of Eastern Asia in being able to cope with infectious diseases can be seen in the infection and mortality rates. On April 8, Japan had under 5,000 cases and Hong Kong had just under 1,000 cases. For a country to be prepared for an epidemic or a pandemic, they must first go through one. Countries don’t fear what they have not experienced and the result is countries like Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States which are all suffering immeasurably. The lesson to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that both empathy for other countries’ challenges and insight into their past experiences are extremely important in a highly globalized world, because the issues that may seem distant and foreign can easily become devastating domestic tragedies.