As governments around the world continue to take measures in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, there are lessons to be learnt from the successes of Taiwan and South Korea in curtailing the spread of the virus.
Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, lauded South Korea earlier in March. And Taiwan’s response to the crisis also shows that swift action and widespread healthcare can prevent an outbreak.
Most fundamentally, universal access to healthcare makes sense, not only for crisis preparedness, but also in people’s everyday lives.
The cases of South Korea and Taiwan show why it is exceedingly important for governments to draw the correct lessons from public health emergencies, by putting necessary measures in place to avoid or at least mitigate the impact of subsequent outbreaks.
Taiwan’s well-staffed healthcare system and public emergency services wasted no time in implementing 124 safety protocols.
During the 2002-2003 SARS-CoV outbreak, there were 346 cases in Taiwan, with 73 deaths. In the wake of that epidemic, the Taiwanese government established the National Health Command Center (NHCC) as part of a disaster management scheme to focus on large outbreak response and act as the operational command point for direct communications among central, regional, and local authorities in the event of another outbreak.
This proved invaluable during the country’s COVID-19 response. There were projections of a high impact on Taiwan when news of the new coronavirus filtered out of Wuhan in late 2019. Such fears were due to the country’s proximity with mainland China where 850,000 of its 23 million citizens live. But Taiwan’s well-staffed healthcare system and public emergency services wasted no time in implementing 124 safety protocols. These protocols were put in place along with the establishment of the NHCC, based on the SARS outbreak experience.
The situation in South Korea was more challenging, with almost 10,000 confirmed cases and over a hundred deaths in the country between January and February. This made it the second most hit country after China at that time.
Testing statistics from South Korea
testing sites across the country
laboratories working around the clock
tested per day
But things would have been much worse without the aggressive public health emergency measures taken with alacrity by the Korean government. At the heart of these were leaps in diagnostic work which the country took based on lessons learnt from the deadly impact of the 2012 MERS epidemic.
The government set up 633 testing sites across the country with 100 laboratories which worked around the clock. Over 300,000 people were tested, with up to 20,000 persons screened every day. This efficient testing and diagnostic network enabled authorities to quickly identify and isolate infected persons. This greatly curbed the virus’s spread, breaking transmission chains and bringing down infection rates.
Governments across the world need to urgently learn from the steps taken by countries like Taiwan and South Korea to face the global pandemic. Proactive testing and big data analysis must be added to the social and physical distancing which is the main means of protection in most countries. And all these have to be rooted in strong, well-resourced and adequately staffed public health systems.
As Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus noted, governments now need to:
expand, train, and deploy their healthcare and public health workforce
implement a system to find every suspected case at the community level
ramp up production capacity and availability of testing
identify, adapt, and equip facilities to treat patients
develop a clear plan and process to quarantine contacts
refocus the whole of government on suppressing and controlling COVID-19
Governments must never forget lessons being learnt from the COVID-19 response. The most fundamental of these, which we will hold every government to, is the implementation of universal public healthcare, once and for all. This means massive improvements of health sector employment, working conditions and training, to fill the projected shortfall of 18 million health workers by 2030, as recommended back in 2016 by the United Nations’ Secretary General’s High-Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth. The world can wait no longer.