A Year After COVID-19 Emerged, Asia Struggles to Contain Growing Outbreaks

A medical worker wearing protective clothing takes a swab from a visitor to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a temporary test station in front of Seoul Train Station on December 22, 2020. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE / AFP via Getty Images) Photo credit - Jung Yeon-je-AFP / Getty Images
Taiwan's record was unmatched. Even as the coronavirus passed tight restrictions in New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere, the island blissfully remained COVID-19 free.
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But the series ended on Tuesday after 253 days. Officials announced that a Taiwanese woman who had contact with a cargo aircraft pilot tested positive for the coronavirus - the first community broadcast since April 12.
The Taiwan outbreak appears to be under control, but it shows that the global COVID-19 surge is destroying even the most careful of defenses.
A year after the first cases of "mysterious viral pneumonia" were reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan, it is becoming increasingly difficult to contain COVID-19 across the Asia-Pacific region. Japan and South Korea have record cases. The largest outbreak in the country to date is taking place in Thailand, which has so far successfully contained the virus. Hong Kong is fighting to quell a fourth wave of the pandemic, and a new cluster has emerged in Sydney, Australia's largest city.
Read more: Asia has beaten back every wave of COVID-19. But this increase could be different
The most recent spike has been in spite of the remarkable success of most governments in keeping the pandemic under control over the past 12 months. A combination of tight border controls, widespread testing, tight contact tracing, social distancing measures, and the almost ubiquitous wearing of masks allowed most places to keep the virus under control as the number of cases skyrocketed in other parts of the world.
In some countries - such as China, Vietnam, Singapore, and New Zealand - case numbers remain low. However, experts say fatigue from social distancing measures and rapidly increasing case numbers hindering contract tracking make it difficult to defend borders. In winter temperatures, the virus can also spread faster in some places.
A man wearing a face mask checks his phone in Taipei, Taiwan on December 9, 2020. Valid Berrazeg-Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
The astounding surge in infections in other parts of the world could also play a role as travelers carry the virus with them. A new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus, identified in the UK, has emerged in several Asian countries.
"The probability that an infected return traveler will enter one of these countries today is much higher today," says Raina MacIntyre, professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. "There are far more infected travelers than ever before."
Hassan Vally, associate professor of public health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, says the rise in the number of cases in the Asia-Pacific region reflects the virus' ability to spread wherever there are weaknesses.
"Being in control of the transmission is only a temporary situation, and this is the world we will live in that will have repeated resurrections," he says. “Until the vaccine is deployed, we must continue all such effective measures, including testing, tracing and isolating contacts, as well as social distancing, increased hand hygiene and restricting our sociability.
Here's what you should know about the growing outbreaks in the Asia Pacific region.
Taiwan has one of the world's most successful responses to the coronavirus, with a population of nearly 24 million, with fewer than 800 cases of coronavirus and just seven deaths. By that week, the self-governing island claimed by China had passed 253 days with no local broadcast and life had largely returned to normal.
Read more: What it was like to attend Taiwan's first 10,000-person arena concert since the pandemic began
But on Tuesday a woman who was the close contact of a foreign pilot tested positive. The pilot, a New Zealander, is said to have been infected last month while on a trip to the United States. The pilot was fined more than US $ 10,000 for failing to "truthfully" explain his contacts and activities to Taiwan health officials. He was fired on Wednesday.
President Tsai Ing-wen said the case was a reminder of the need to remain vigilant. "It shows that the pandemic is far from over and that international cooperation is crucial because we are all involved in it together."
Thai elephants dressed as Santa Claus deliver face masks to motorists on a busy street corner in Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, Thailand on December 23, 2020. Lauren DeCicca - Getty Images
Although Thailand is the first country outside of China to officially report cases of COVID-19, it avoided large virus surges this year, with just over 4,000 cases and 60 deaths before December.
But on December 17, a worker at a fish market tested positive for the coronavirus. Health officials began mass testing on December 20, and hundreds of people have tested positive since then. The country recorded 809 new cases on December 21.
Samut Sakhon, the province where the market is located, has been put on hold with an overnight curfew and restrictions on travel outside the province.
In Australia, the state of New South Wales, where Sydney is located, is battling a minor outbreak. More than 100 local COVID-19 cases have been reported this week.
There may be a bug in the country's hotel quarantine system for arriving travelers. Although the source of the latest outbreak has not yet been confirmed, health officials say it may be related to a woman who returned from Los Angeles in early December.
On Monday, officials said they had discovered cases of a new, contagious strain of the coronavirus that has been identified among travelers in quarantine in the UK.
The state government announced some easing of social distancing restrictions over the Christmas period on Wednesday after registering just eight new cases from nearly 42,000 tests.
Quarantine control errors have been traced back to an outbreak in Melbourne in June and July that led to the country's largest COVID-19 surge. In response, Victoria, the state where Melbourne is located, imposed a 112 day embargo - one of the longest and toughest restrictions in the world. The state began lifting restrictions in October after the COVID-19 numbers were reduced to zero.
To deter travelers from spreading COVID-19 in the community, Australia has banned entry for almost all non-residents and even limited the number of citizens who are allowed to return home to just a few thousand a week. As a result, tens of thousands of Australians have been stranded overseas - estimates are between 25,000 and 100,000.
South Korea
Hailed as a role model for its skillful handling of the virus, South Korea is battling the country's worst outbreak to date. The country has largely avoided the draconian lockdowns in order to protect its economy. This strategy is being tested by a new wave of the virus.
"It's hard to get control without a lockdown - unless you can get the vaccine in," says MacIntyre, professor of biosecurity in Sydney.
In the past week, the country reported two record-high daily coronavirus cases. Almost 1,100 cases were recorded on Sunday. As of Monday, there were only 42 ICU beds available out of 52 million people across the nation.
Several areas announced on December 21st that they would ban holiday celebrations of five or more people.
Soonman Kwon, a professor of health economics and policy at Seoul National University, says the increase was due to a combination of factors including winter season, when respiratory illnesses and flu are more likely to spread, and population fatigue after nearly one Year of social distancing.
As in other places in Asia, he says, the surge in South Korea could be more difficult to contain due to lower compliance with social distancing restrictions and an increasing number of cases making contacts difficult to trace.
Hong Kong
People wear protective masks and walk on the street in Hong Kong, China on December 15, 2020. Savasas Tsuji - Getty Images
Hong Kong is battling its fourth wave of coronavirus. Executive director Carrie Lam said this wave was "more complicated and serious" as the cases were "widespread" in the territory.
The government has put in place strict social distancing measures, including limiting public group meetings to two people and banning dining in restaurants after 6:00 p.m. Lam has urged Hong Kongers to "stop all social activities".
Despite these restrictions, the number of new cases has hardly decreased in the last four weeks.
The city of 7.5 million has had more than 8,300 cases and 133 people have died.
On Tuesday, the city banned flights from the UK to keep away the newly discovered strain of the virus, which British scientists say is up to 70% more transmissible.
Japan is facing an increasingly dire situation as the number of infections increases. Cases began to peak in early November, with daily infections in the country of 126 million people topping 200,000 on Monday.
Tokyo has confirmed nearly 11,000 cases so far this month - a record. On Tuesday alone, the country reported 2,658 new cases.
Hospitals run the risk of being overwhelmed. About half of Tokyo’s 4,000 hospital beds reserved for COVID-19 patients were full last week.
Read more: Why Japan, Once a COVID-19 Success Story, Has the Chance of a Dark, Deadly Winter
Critics say the government has shown poor leadership and a lack of scientific expertise in dealing with the pandemic and has been too slow to act.
Researchers at the University of Tokyo and the University of California at Los Angeles found that people who participated in a government campaign to promote domestic travel called "Go To Travel" were twice as likely to experience COVID-19 symptoms as they did who does not (the government rejected the study's conclusions). The government announced on December 14th that it would suspend the travel campaign - but only on December 28th.
Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease doctor at Kobe University in Japan, says winter temperatures and COVID-19 fatigue are also likely to play a role. He says that as the number of patients and clusters increases, the more difficult it becomes to contain the virus, making it difficult to prevent the virus from spreading.
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