These Countries Beat COVID. Now, They’re Losing Again.
Back in early May, when the United States was still near its first peak of the pandemic, health experts and policymakers were looking around the world for countries that could present a way forward. They were looking for places that suppressed the virus to use their tactics as a model for steps the U.S. needed to take moving forward to win the battle against COVID-19.
Today, though, some of these same countries that were presenting the gold-standard in the fight against COVID are now experiencing outbreaks that threaten to undo the progress that has been made.
Japan was a nation that had its pandemic peak on April 12 when the country confirmed 743 cases of COVID in a single day, according to data from the World Health Organization. After that, the nation saw numbers of confirmed cases each day that were in the low double digits.
Hong Kong experienced a similar trend. After a peak in late April, the city had several days in the months of May and June where they reported zero cases.
The success of these countries was attributed to similar reasons. Hong Kong’s massive testing operation, quick action on borders, strictly enforced quarantine rules, and mask-wearing culture allowed for the nation to control the virus. Japan also had a strong contact tracing system, mask-wearing culture, and used easy to understand language to make sure residents knew how to stay safe.
And yet, despite these efforts, these nations are watching new outbreaks take place. According to WHO data, Japan reported 583 cases of COVID-19 on July 17, the highest since mid-April. In Tokyo, where a rise in cases with young people is being traced back to nightclubs, the city is paying nightlife venues to shut down to slow the spread of the disease.
Government data in Hong Kong shows the city reported its highest number of cases in a single day on July 16. Group gatherings are now being limited to just four people, and Hong Kong Disneyland is being shut once again.
On March 28, Australia recorded 469 cases in a single day, according to Australian Health Department data. That day ended up being its peak. By June 9, the country reported just two cases. In May, a spokesperson for the Australian Department of Health told CNN that Australia had “truly flattened the curve of cases and new infections.”
Health experts accredited Australia’s success to its harsh border restrictions that took effect on March 19 where the government announced the country was closed “to all non-citizens and non-residents,” according to a statement by the prime minister’s office. Their large testing operation, which in early May rivaled countries with much greater populations, like the United Kingdom, was also cited as a reason for their success against COVID-19.
Now, the Australian Health Department says the country reported its second-worst day of cases on July 17, recording 438 new infections.
These three countries were all crushing COVID-19. Suddenly, they’re not. It begs the question, what happened?
Tokyo fully reopened in mid-June, when the city was reporting few new infections of COVID-19. This full reopening meant that all businesses, even those that were considered high-risk, were once again allowed to operate.
On June 14, half of the cases reported in the capital city were from young men working in nightlife venues. Still, the city pushed forward with reopening plans. Kaori Kohga, the head of an industry association that represents clubs, justified the push to Bloomberg by talking about the economic effects of the shutdowns. He said many nightlife venue employees are “barely getting by with one meal a day.”
This decision was very similar to ones we saw across the globe. Policymakers reopening their regions despite blaring warning signals. Whether it’s India opening public spaces even while their COVID-19 cases were still rising, or in the U.S. where the state of Georgia pushed forward to reopen despite not seeing a consistent decline in key metrics. This approach was not new. However, it was new for Japan which had differentiated itself from other nations for a unique approach, but now succumbed to the financial pressures and began to reopen.
The case of Hong Kong is quite different. Residents are not the source. The new wave of infections is instead coming from imported cases. In late June, imported cases started to cause a rise in daily case counts, and that has now translated into community spread. Many of these imported cases were traced back to flights on which passengers came to the country. The Hong Kong airport reopened in early June, reversing the city’s tight border restrictions, and has now become the source of a new outbreak.
Australia is also seeing a similar problem. Imported cases are now transitioning into community spread. Earlier this month, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Michael Kidd, told the Associated Press that in the span of two weeks the percentage of new cases that were imported went from 50 to just 16.
Some states of the country are now imposing restrictions between borders to limit the spread of disease across all of Australia. However, new guidelines are not universal. In New South Wales, 100 people can gather for a religious service, but in Victoria, public gatherings are limited to 10 people. This more local level approach is different from Australia’s strategy at the beginning of the pandemic and is one that the other nations have been criticized for.
Whether it’s not listening to warning signs, opening travel too quickly, or decentralizing the response to the pandemic, these three nations all have one thing in common: they abandoned early approaches. The approach of Japan prioritizing health over economics, of Hong Kong having strict border controls, and of Australia fighting the pandemic as one force instead of six states.
These countries all had unique ways to fight COVID that the world aspired to follow. However, these same nations eventually started following the paths of countries that were struggling in their efforts to fight the disease. Whether you believe these choices were for the right reasons or not, they were decisions made that have led to a new wave of infections in previously thought to be safe countries.
Now the question is, will these countries return to their old approach and stick to it? Or will they repeat their previous cycles and risk another wave of infections? That’s a choice leaders of these countries will have to make.