The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has presented the international community with an unprecedented set of economic and public health challenges. Globally, there are now nearly five million confirmed COVID-19 cases resulting in over 300,000 deaths.
In the early days of the pandemic, China was the epicenter for the spread of COVID-19, with local transmission hotspots rapidly dispersing the contagion to neighboring nations. Fortunately, due to a combination of technological innovation and rapid adoption of shifting social norms, East Asia has been extraordinarily successful in both flattening the regional viral curve and limiting the lethality of a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Indeed last month, the epicenter for COVID-19 sharply shifted away from Asia and landed squarely in the unprepared arms of the United States and Europe.
While public health prospects in Asia have improved, it is still too soon to declare the region’s crisis over. Firstly, although Asia boasts a series of remarkable successes in weathering the COVID-19 storm, large tracts of the region, including India and much of Southeast Asia, are yet to pass the peak inflection point on the COVID-19 viral curve. Secondly, the probability of a secondary spike in COVID-19 cases—resulting from either undetected community transmission or returning expatriates—remains high. The latter consideration is especially concerning given the growing pressure on recovering countries to begin unwinding social distancing restrictions. Nevertheless, the existence of these concerns should by no means detract from the region’s broader achievement in containing local transmission of COVID-19.
Given the success of East Asia’s COVID-19 strategy, developed and developing states alike are now attempting to mirror the virus response of major economies in the Indo-Pacific. While there is unquestionably merit to the idea of distilling specific Indo-Pacific public health policies into a model for COVID-19 containment, it’s important to keep in mind that Asia possesses a unique set of generational experiences and technical advantages that other regions may not be able to easily replicate.
From a socio-cultural perspective, East Asia’s responses to COVID-19 have been consistently informed by a proactive awareness of the seriousness of a viral epidemic. Most East Asian residents can personally recall the harsh lessons of the 2003 SARS epidemic. The recency of the SARS outbreak—and its associated effects on the severity recognition of infectious diseases—is believed to have propelled the early implementation and rigorous enforcement of social distancing policies in China, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
In Hong Kong in particular, peer-reviewed studies indicate that the SARS epidemic has had a lasting impact on hygiene-related habits, increasing both the pursuit of health-seeking behaviors and the usage of low-contact social greetings. A recent report from the Lancet Public Health Journal seemingly confirms this thesis, with 99 percent of Hong Kong respondents admitting to wearing face masks when leaving home and 85 percent of respondents meticulously avoiding crowded places.
In addition to proactive economic lockdowns and strict social distancing policies, Asian nations have also benefited from well-funded medical services, robust manufacturing capacity, and a thriving regional technology sector. These foundations have given countries like China a massive head start when it comes to the distribution of personal protective equipment, the adoption of contactless payment systems, and the dissemination of official personal hygiene guidance.
At the same time, Asia has also registered huge advancements in the use of technology for remote work and optimized sanitation outcomes. For instance, in the initial weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, both China and Hong Kong announced that public health authorities, working in conjunction with the technology sector, would be deploying dozens of state-of-the-art products and services to help combat the spread of the virus.
To date, the fast-tracked rollout of health tech products in Asia has included everything from disinfecting robots for contactless deliveries to sophisticated facial recognition programs for quarantine monitoring or track/trace surveillance. By integrating these products into their formal COVID-19 responses, China and Hong Kong have been able to improve hygiene for quarantined citizens, thereby alleviating the strain on overburdened public health services. The health tech evolution in China and Hong Kong has since spread to other advanced economies in the region, leading to a swathe of health tech pilot programs in Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan.
While the global economic outlook remains bleak, Asia’s skyrocketing rate of advancement in AI, drone technology, and big data are now expected to reframe foreign investment prospects across the region’s technology sector. The subsequent surge in these technology-heavy markets has helped Asia cling on to positive growth in the midst of global economic contraction, stabilizing currency values and staving off region-wide recession.
It is no exaggeration when we say that Asia, especially booming China and the mature economies like Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, offer a valuable blueprint for virus containment and economic recovery. If Asia can continue its modernization, effective hygiene practices, and innovation in health tech, it will be well-positioned to not only eliminate COVID-19, but emerge from the pandemic stronger and more productive than before.