How China, Japan, South Korea responded to coronavirus. What US can learn

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A man with a fask mask inside a coffee shop in China, where outdoor seating is empty. Credit: Gauthier DELECROIX (CC BY 2.0).

The United Nations rolled out a new plan today for fighting the coronavirus outbreak in the world’s poorest countries. It’s called the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, a $2 billion deal to bolster the global economy and provide aid to countries already facing humanitarian crises. 

"COVID-19 is menacing the whole of humanity, so the whole of humanity must fight back," U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said today.

On today’s Daily Dose, Dr. Michael Wilkes, professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis, talks about the challenges other nations have struggled with during the pandemic. He says countries like China, South Korea and Italy have approaches that the U.S. could adopt in its fight against COVID-19. 

“There's a lot that we've learned, some positive and some negative from China. We've learned that this idea of social distancing, when fully enforced, really works. … They were very effective at containing this infection to a relatively small geographic area,” he says.

KCRW: Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have taken various approaches that seem to be working. What can the U.S. learn from them? 

“Japan took the task of immediately stopping all foreign visitors, first from China, then from elsewhere. And they monitored those visitors. They did very little testing, and they essentially built a firewall around the country,” says Wilkes.

He notes that when more than 700 passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship tested positive, Japanese officials refused to let anyone disembark. But the Japanese government realized that policy wasn’t working.

"It was an infectious disease disaster.  By the middle of February, the Japanese government realized that policy was failing. The problem was they failed to track infected persons who were already in Japan. Perhaps the Japanese could have taught us that the firewall approach to blocking people from coming into the country just isn't working and wouldn't work on a global economy.” 

Wilkes points to South Korea’s approach to containing COVID-19: contact tracing.  

“They did a remarkable job both in terms of how quickly they produced the kits, and how aggressively they tested. And they were really on the road to amazing success,” he says.

However, there were difficulties in containing the virus.

“The problem was that there was this church that had a huge number of cases. The church purposely gave the government an incorrect list of contacts. At that point, the game was over. The estimates are that about 60% of all the cases in South Korea originated in that church.” 

What could other countries learn from the U.S.? 

“We've learned that if one person or a group doesn't follow government guidelines, it can create an infectious disease loophole that can have a profound effect. People need to trust the government and be willing to cooperate with the policies,” Wilkes says. “I think today in the United States ... government is a bad word, and advice coming from Washington at times seems nonsensical and based on a sort of magical thinking. A small group of skeptics or conspiracy theorists strategically placed can wreak havoc on their country.” 

He says that as countries begin to see the epidemic, it’s important to adhere to contact tracing, as well as social distancing: “Social isolation is going to be the key. It's the only thing that has been shown to be effective.” 

The government needs to speak with one voice?

“I think it needs to speak with one voice, but it needs to have both ears open to listen. There are lots of experts in places like the United States and England and China and Italy. Their voices need to be heard, [and] to drown them out and to not listen to them is a huge mistake.”