Asia’s Virus Champs Don’t Blame China: They Simply Get the Job Done

Countries that took early, aggressive action, using
proven methods, have severely limited the virus.
—Todd Pollack, infectious disease expert

I have a special affection for the people of Kerala, one of India’s 36 states on its southwest coast. During my first sabbatical to India in 1992, I did research at a Roman Catholic seminary in Bangalore. I lived with students, brothers, and priests from Kerala, and I supported one student for his Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

The Bangalore apartment that I rented then (and again in 1995) was owned by a chemistry professor and nurse from Kerala. They worked in Germany, and I met them briefly before they returned to work in Europe. For many years I was pen pals with their daughter Cinderella (Cindy for short), who would now be 37 years old.

Kerala: Third World’s Best Health Care

With 36 million people Kerala has the best education system in India (95% literacy vs. 74% nation-wide) and its health care system is the best in the third world. Leftist governments and an active Christian minority have contributed to this amazing success. Kerala’s chief health official is a member of India’s Communist Party.

Incredibly enough, Kerala has slightly more hospital beds per capita than the U.S. At his TED Talk (9/11/14), Swedish doctor Hans Rosling observed that Kerala, with only about $3,000 per person per year, “matches the U.S. in health.”

In 2018, Kerala’s health officials acted expeditiously in combating the Nipah virus, a bat-borne illness that had a deadly 91 percent fatality rate. The government contained the virus within a month by imposing village curfews, contact tracing, and strict quarantine of those infected.

Kerala Contains COVID-19

These same measures were reactivated as soon as news broke about COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. Kerala was fully ready for its first case: a medical student returning from Wuhan on January 24. As of June 2, Kerala had reported a total of 1,700 cases and 15 deaths, by far the best record in India. Kerala is bracing itself for the return of thousands of its overseas workers, expelled from their host countries because of the virus, but its public health system is as prepared for them as any in the world.

No Deaths with Vietnam’s Strict Procedures

Vietnam’s Communist government (not democratically elected as is Kerala’s) has had great success against COVID-19. This Asian economic tiger with 97 million people leads the world in one significant statistic: virus tests per confirmed cases—leading the U.S. by a factor of 10. This public health achievement has resulted in the astounding fact that Vietnam, right on China’s doorstep, has reported no COVID-19 deaths.

Some say that Vietnam’s Communist government must have cheated, but Oxford’s public health expert Guy Thwaits insists: “I go to the wards, I know the cases, I know there has been no death.” With regard to virus death deception, it is some of our southern states that are the culprits.

Testing, Re-Testing, Contact Tracing Essential

When anti-lockdown Americans and their politicians boast about low infection rates, they are ignorant of the fact that without widespread testing, it is impossible to tell who is carrying the virus. Iceland, for example, has now tested and re-tested all its citizens, and officials found that half of those who tested positive were not showing any symptoms. Iceland now has an accurate number of confirmed cases, and it has a reliable death rate comparable to East Asian nations (.5%) as opposed to the U.S. at an unreliable 5.7 percent.

Taiwan Officials in Wuhan on Dec. 31

On January 20, the Taiwanese government activated its Central Epidemic Command Center, one day before it reported its first case of COVD-19. Even before that, on December 31, Taiwan sent medical officials to Wuhan to find out as much as they could about the suspected virus, not yet known as COVID-19. The Trump administration had already reduced the staff of the Centers for Disease Control’s in China from 47 to 14, so the U.S. had far fewer eyes on the ground there.

At the end of December, Taiwan received permission to screen all airline passengers from Wuhan to its airports. In stark contrast, 4,000 passengers from Wuhan arrived in the U.S. before Trump’s travel ban, which, including the later one on European arrivals, leaked like a sieve. Because of its high testing rate, Taiwan is second in the world behind Vietnam for the number of tests for each confirmed case. With 24 million people, Taiwan currently has only 441 cases and 7 deaths.

Singapore Acts Quickly on COVID-19

A densely populated city-state of 5.7 million at a crossroads of trade and travel, Singapore has had the second highest number of coronavirus cases in East Asia. Intensive testing, contact tracing, travel restrictions, however, have limited the number of deaths to 24. Singapore acted just as quickly as Taiwan and obviated the need to close stores or schools.

In mid-April Singapore did experience a surge in new cases in the crowded dormitories (sometimes 20 to a room) of its 200,000 foreign workers, but authorities responded quickly with the same effective measures, including housing them in more spacious accommodations. The government is now constructing 6,000 new apartments for them.

Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health has declared that Singapore is the “gold standard of near-perfect detection,” but that could be said of all of East Asia’s COVID champions. This achievement, however, has come at the cost of loss of privacy and heavy fines for breaking quarantine.

Hong Kong’s Citizens Lead Virus Fight

Hong Kong, another prosperous city-state of 7 million people, has the highest testing rates in Asia. Unlike its neighbors, however, Hong Kong’s government was slow to respond to COVI-19. Chief Executive Carrie Lam was in Switzerland at the time of the first case and she was criticized for not returning promptly.

Initially, Lam did not shut down the border to China, being content with screening travelers showing symptoms. Just like the critics of Trump’s China and Europe travel bans, many Hong Kongers maintained that the measures were too lax.

Even though eight suspicious cases were detected on January 8, the government did not declare a health emergency until January 25. Train traffic from China was finally shut down on January 28. Wuhan was only 6.5 hours away by bullet train, and most of Hong Kong’s cases were traced to that city.

The protesters who have marched against China’s new security rules for months turned their organizational structure and skills into an effective public health warning system. They rejected China’s assurances that there was no community spread in Wuhan. They also distributed millions of masks and took food to the elderly and those in official quarantine.

A Hong Kong restaurant owner explained it this way: “I think Hong Kong’s success in controlling this epidemic is largely driven by its people. The experience of SARS in 2003 taught us a lot. This time we took our own measures, and we were quick to act.”

When Hong Kong’s health workers went on strike (they complained that they did not have enough personal protective equipment), the government finally responded by restricting train travel and setting up screening stations at the airports. A 14-day mandatory quarantine was ordered for all in-coming travelers. The economy and schools have now re-opened. Even with the delays, there have been only 4 deaths.

South Korea Sets the Standard for COVID Prevention

In mid-February, South Korea was the first nation to offer drive-by testing, setting up 50 sites throughout this nation of 51 million people. The Trump administration lent federal support for the idea in the U.S., but then on April 8, it announced that the states would have to take over.  The backlash was so fierce that federal money was extended until May 30. Testing, whether drive-by or otherwise, is still not sufficient to get control of this deadly disease.

While Korean medical officials were testing 12,000 people per day during the month of February, the Center for Disease Control had failed to produce a viable test that entire time, even though German kits had been available from the World Health Organization in January. Korea is now exporting its test kits to 20 other countries, and it is also sending personal protection equipment to the U.S.

Evangelical Church: A Virus Super Spreader

Early in the pandemic Korea experienced “super spreading” events in its evangelical churches. The center of this outbreak was the Shincheonji Church, which, after testing 9,336 of its 245,000 members, health officials found 1,261 positive cases. By February 27 the church’s infected amounted to 63 percent of the total cases in Korea. Later in May other hot spots erupted in some nightclubs in Seoul and they were immediately shut down.

A petition was circulated to close the Shincheonji Church, but the government refused to do so. There was also a petition, signed by 740,000 people, requesting that the government stop Chinese tourists from entering the country. In addition, one restaurant posted a sign that said “No Chinese Allowed.” In all my research on the topic of the coronavirus in East Asia, this the only instance of anti-Chinese sentiment that I found.

U.S. Deaths Could Have Been Much Lower

The abysmal lack of leadership at the federal level and Trump’s dismissal of medical science has led to national disunity with widespread confusion, misinformation, and far too much risky behavior. Vietnam’s public areas are plastered with posters declaring: “To Stay at Home is to Love Your Country.” The East Asian nations unified their citizens around a science-based approach that has contained COVID-19 and prevented thousands of deaths.

I’m grieving the loss of over 111,000 plus American lives because Trump did not follow the examples of the East Asian nations. (By one calculation 36,000 fewer lives would have been lost if Trump had acted just one week earlier.) The East Asians above have had 329 deaths in their dense populations of 222 million. Starting in January, the U.S., following East Asian protocols, could have had, by proportion, 492 fatalities.

Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read all his columns on the coronavirus at Email him at

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