How to handle coronavirus: Lessons to be learned from Asia

As the UK seemingly goes out on a limb with its approach to tackling Covid-19, it’s worth - and I hope our Government is also - drawing on the examples of other nations which have already been through what Britain is about to face.

The region I’m reporting from has one unfortunate but major advantage over the UK in that Asia has more recently had to deal with similar outbreaks; SARS, MERS and other flu-like viruses.

This has taught each country valuable lessons in what it must to do in the event of a pandemic like we are experiencing now.

Security guards patrol a shopping district in Beijing, China. Credit: AP


China's (belated) response was extreme. An all-encompassing lockdown of Wuhan, which still remains, and the entire Hubei province.

The rest of the country was also placed under an unprecedented level of restrictions and subject to checks and measures to contain and control the virus and every single person in the country.

There are still families here in Beijing, mostly elderly people, too scared to go out of their homes. That fear comes from the SARS outbreak of 2002/3 which hit the capital particularly hard.

It also meant there was no panic here; people knew what they needed to do and they did it, and are still doing it despite the diminishing cases.

Hong Kong shares that painful memory of SARS and so when the first cases were confirmed there, people also acted quickly and voluntarily to stay at home, wearing masks (if available) and reluctantly but ultimately shut off borders to reduce the risk of further cases arriving and the virus spreading.

Hundreds of deaths during SARS meant there was no need to convince people to take this seriously.

Singapore was one of the first countries hit by coronavirus. Credit: AP


Singapore was also one of the first hit, with dozens of cases emerging within weeks of the Wuhan lockdown. It's another country primed by SARS experience.

The government there introduced a controversial but apparently successful tracking system which has, to date, helped prevent a mass outbreak.

There are just 178 cases and no deaths reported.

Within 24 or 48 hours of a case being identified in Singapore their contacts were hunted down and isolated. The controversy comes from the level of detail published about each case to help in that tracking process – names, ages, nationalities, even addresses.

At Singapore’s ports of entry and exit they also deployed nucleic tests and those still allowed to enter the country were held in quarantine for up to three hours until their test results came through.

It was another country to immediately restrict entry to China, and other affected countries. As of March 15 it is extending that ban further to prevent anyone from France, Italy, Spain and Germany from entering.

South Korea is able to test up to 10,000 people a day. Credit: AP

South Korea

South Korea's response was driven by lessons learned from the MERS outbreak in 2015 which killed 38 people.

Its answer has been testing on a massive scale. At clinics and drive-through testing stations the country is able to test up to 10,000 people a day.

That method is being cited as the reason for the relatively low mortality rate there, compared to Italy which had a comparable rise and number of cases.

Testing has allowed the authorities to contain cluster outbreaks - like the main one connected to a church in Daegu - and prevent the virus from reaching its major cities.

Seoul has reported only 103 infections.

Warnings about coronavirus at Heathrow airport. Credit: PA

There is unfortunately no single model or indeed answer to how the UK should handle this outbreak.

Our society is very different to those described here but I hope Britons will come to show the same sense of community and camaraderie which has united people in Asia to fight this virus and do what they can to protect themselves, and others.