The coronavirus pandemic is in its early stages, yet there is much the U.S. can learn from countries that are further along in dealing with the contagion’s spread.
Lessons on what and what not to do come from countries such as China, where the virus originated. An aggressive response after an initial, deadly denial has helped stem the tide — flattened the curve, in today’s pandemic parlance — of new infections. Among the mitigation efforts: speeded-up detection, quarantine and treatment protocols that have helped China begin to recover to the severe jolt to its physical, social and economic health.
Authoritarian edicts are obeyed in China, but the same pattern of repression helped suppress initial warnings about the virus from Wuhan doctors, some of whom were even punished for their truth-telling.
While no such measures are manifest in America, the very public, very wrong, and very dangerous dismissal of the virus as a “hoax” by President Donald Trump, many of his congressional supporters and a compliant conservative media cost this nation invaluable response time.
Taiwan is just 81 miles south of China, but its response was a world apart. Seared by the SARS outbreak in 2003, Taipei dramatically ramped up its version of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and began screening airline passengers from Wuhan even before the coronavirus was officially diagnosed. And then it made testing widely available for anyone showing symptoms.
Taiwan then quickly mobilized to identify cases, contain the spread and allocate needed resources. The nation also leveraged its national health insurance and immigration and customs databases to track and mitigate the crisis, according to an analysis published in the Journal of American Medical Association.
“In a crisis, governments often make difficult decisions under uncertainty and time constraints,” concluded the analysis. “These decisions must be both culturally appropriate and sensitive to the population. Through early recognition of the crisis, daily briefings to the public, and simple health messaging, the government was able to reassure the public by delivering timely, accurate, and transparent information regarding the evolving epidemic. Taiwan is an example of how a society can respond quickly to a crisis and protect the interests of its citizens.”
The testing and communication components are key, Eric Huang, the director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Chicago, told an editorial writer. “Whenever we find a suspected case, we immediately test it,” Huang said.
Ramping up testing has been a challenge in the U.S., and on Tuesday Minnesota’s public health lab announced it was restricting COVID-19 testing to hospitalized patients, health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.
“Transparency and the fight against misinformation is also very critical,” Huang said. “Taiwan is a democracy like most advanced countries in the world. When we fight disinformation, we also protect freedom of speech.”
China, conversely, deepened its spat with America and free speech Tuesday by expelling journalists from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post in moves that will impact the world’s need to know what’s happening at the epicenter of the pandemic.
America, of course, is blessed with the opposite: a vigorous free press and the First Amendment to protect it. It also has local and state government leaders who have stepped up to respond and communicate effectively, according to Jeremy Youde, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, who is an expert on global health politics.
“The most important thing that we could do at this stage is to have a coordinated response from the government, from the local to the national level,” Youde told an editorial writer.
America’s distinct political and social culture make it difficult to replicate the relative success in Taiwan, Singapore or Hong Kong. That’s why it’s so critical for the Trump administration to provide leadership during the crisis.
Fortunately, the White House’s mitigation and messaging efforts have improved in recent days. That needs to continue.
“The government cannot achieve this mission alone,” Huang said. “People have to be very responsible, too.”