Cases of COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the coronavirus, have been rising at a rapid rate worldwide since the outbreak first spread from mainland China.
The goal of every country during this pandemic, which is unprecedented in our digital era, is to flatten the curve of cases by stemming the increasing trajectory.
Here is an overview of 7 countries that have, so far, been successful in containing the outbreak. We look at the methods they have used to keep cases relatively low.
1. South Korea
South Korea has shown a very efficient response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of writing it has 9,786 confirmed cases and 162 deaths. By comparison, Italy has 97,689 confirmed cases and 10,781 deaths.
While cases are still growing in Italy and South Korea, the latter country's growth rate is a lot slower, meaning that its health system is not overwhelmed. This is all the more impressive given South Korea's proximity to mainland China, where the coronavirus originated in November.
In part, this is down to its experience with the SARS epidemic in 2003. South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam built up their public health infrastructures after the SARS epidemic in order to be able to efficiently respond to future outbreaks.
A key component to efficiently containing the virus, so far, is a high testing capability, as it allows for cases to be caught earlier and contained. Amongst the methods used in South Korea are "phone booth" coronavirus testing facilities that allow medical staff to examine patients from behind the safety of a plexiglass panel.
Another method South Korea has set up to greatly increase its testing capability is the drive-through clinic, which allows for people to be quickly tested in their cars and receive their test results at home.
Singapore has, remarkably, reported less than 1000 cases and has had 0 deaths from the coronavirus. Impressively, though the country was one of the first to report COVID-19 cases outside of China, it has managed to remain lockdown-free.
Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had to caution that the coronavirus is very much a crisis, mainly due to economic reasons, despite the country's successful response so far:
“The Singapore economy is very open and connected. We’re a very major business and financial hub, closely integrated with the global economy so this is a serious crisis,” Heng, who’s also Singapore’s finance minister, told CNBC.
Dale Fisher, chair of the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network recently cited the country's exemplary measures by saying, “all the things that Singapore has in place, any country under lockdown will need to do these, or implement these during a lockdown, so that they can be safe afterwards.”
These measures include efficiently isolating and quarantining of cases, strict public social distancing measures, and effective contact tracing, whereby anyone who is found to have come into contact with an infected person must self-isolate for a required period.
Fisher also cites the fact that Singapore started preparing as soon as news broke of cases spreading in the city of Wuhan:
"Any country really had January and February to get themselves prepared," he explained. "Countries that didn’t take advantage of that lead time are now the ones that have got a problem."
Taiwan is another impressive case of an island country with strong ties to China keeping cases remarkably low; it has reported only 3 deaths and less than 300 cases so far within its population of 23 million.
Taiwan — which is only 81 miles away from mainland China — began screening passengers flying in from Wuhan as early as Dec. 31, according to the Medical Express.
The country's government also set strict border controls, school closures and quarantine orders for people who were infected. In order to enable quick communication, a command center was also set up by local Taiwanese governments to reach their citizens.
With its low number of cases, despite its proximity to mainland China, Taiwan has shown that governments are capable of responding effectively to an epidemic without having to put widespread authoritarian measures in place.
In Vietnam, a country with limited resources when compared to the likes of South Korea and Singapore, there are currently 194 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 0 fatalities.
Ravina Kullar, an infectious disease researcher and epidemiologist with Expert Stewardship Inc. in the U.S. says that, though most of the world waited too long to prepare for COVID-19, this wasn't the case with Vietnam:
"[Vietnam] started preparing for this on Dec. 31. They were testing on Dec. 31," Kullar told Medical Express. "They were proactive, and that I think is a key to preventing epidemics. They were overly cautious, and that really benefited the country."
The Vietnamese government also set up daily press conferences at an early stage where they informed the public with honest information about the spread of the coronavirus.
"They were very open and honest with the citizens of Vietnam, and that really served them well," Kullar said.
Another measure Vietnam has included is the handing of heavy fines for the spreading of fake news and misinformation — leading to a curb in the spread of potentially dangerous unsubstantiated practices.
5. Hong Kong
In the early stages of the outbreak, Hong Kong was seen as a model for containing cases of COVID-19. A very recent surge in cases, however, provides a cautionary note to any countries that are thinking of easing restrictions.
Early virus mapping, social distancing measures, and quarantine measures meant that Hong Kong only had 150 confirmed cases at the start of March. On March 23 however, cases suddenly doubled. Today, confirmed cases are rising, but they still sit at a relatively low 714 and fatalities at 4.
Hong Kong's sudden surge is part of a trend that is playing out throughout parts of Asia, where restrictions are being renewed amidst a second wave of infections caused by people returning from other parts of the world, and expats traveling from abroad.
This week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that all non-residents would be barred from the territory starting Wednesday, as part of a list of new measures, CNN reports.
Despite the fact that Italy currently has the most deaths in the world at 10,781 and Spain had the second-highest at 8,269, Germany has managed to keep its numbers relatively low.
The total number of confirmed infections in Germany sits at 67,051, while there have been 682 deaths. Though Germany saw its highest increase in deaths yesterday with 128 people added to the death toll, its numbers are still much lower than most of its neighbors. Germany's mortality rate is currently 1% while Italy's is 11.4% and Spain's is 8.7%.
So what sets it apart from its European neighbors? Germany appears to have tested far more people than any other European country. As per Business Insider, Christian Drosten, director of the institute of virology at Berlin's Charité hospital recently estimated that Germany is testing 120,000 people a week. By comparison, by March 28, the United Kingdom has tested a total of 113,777 people.
The scientific consensus at the moment is that a large number of coronavirus cases are mild or asymptomatic and are, therefore, never confirmed. What widespread testing does is it allows for more of these mild cases to be caught. This way, mild and asymptomatic carriers, who might otherwise go outside and spread the infection, can be effectively isolated.
7. Czech Republic
The Czech Republic and Slovakia are the only two countries in Europe to have made mask-wearing mandatory by law. The Czech Republic currently has 2,669 confirmed cases and 13 deaths.
The measures were described in a government-sponsored video that features appearances by particle physicist Vojtech Petracek, Ph.D., virologist Emil Pavlik Ph.D., and the Czech health minister Adam Vojtěch.
“The Czech Republic is one of the few in Europe that has significantly slowed down the spread of the virus,” the narrator says. “The main difference is that everyone who has to leave their house has to wear a mask.”
Though the use of face masks has been endorsed by the World Health Organization, some experts do dispute their effectiveness when used by the public. However, though surgical masks are not effective at stopping someone from becoming infected, they have been shown to be effective when it comes to stopping an ill person from spreading COVID-19.
So the received wisdom would suggest that if everyone were made to wear a mask, this would be an effective measure for reducing infections dramatically.
Thankfully, cases in China have lowered substantially since the outbreak was at its worst in the country, and while Italy and Spain are still seeing high numbers of deaths on a daily basis, the rate of new infections in these two countries is showing signs of slowing.
Though many countries are yet to face up to the worst of the outbreak, a few nations are pointing the way forward amidst widespread uncertainty.