It was South Korean President Moon Jae-in, speaking on Sunday after a group of new corona virus cases appeared in the capital Seoul, sparking fears of a second wave of infections in the East Asian country.
South Korea was one of the first places to deal with a major coronavirus epidemic, and appears to be on track to ease restrictions, after weeks of socially distancing and close surveillance. But the new cluster seems to have put an end to it, for now, with Moon warning his people “we must not lower our vigilance regarding preventing epidemics.”
China also introduced new restrictions after two cities reported new cases of the virus. Shulan, in Jilin province at the northeastern tip of the country, was stationed is in a lockdown, following 11 newly confirmed cases. Jilin borders Russia and North Korea, and previously there were concerns about cases of imports from abroad which caused a new outbreak.
Even more alarming is the collection of new infections in Wuhan, a city in central China where corona virus cases were first detected late last year. Wuhan was the first city in the world to be locked, only returning to normal relatively late last month after 76 days.
On Monday, city officials said five new cases had been confirmed in the city, none of which were imported from abroad. While it is far from the figures at the beginning of the crisis, or reported daily in much of western Europe and the United States now, the real ability of the virus to continue to spread is undetectable – especially in cities as highly watched and restricted because of Wuhan – will raise concerns about reopening survival.
Mi Feng, a spokesman for the Chinese National Health Commission, on Sunday urging people to “stay alert and increase personal protection against viruses.” He added that the new cluster is a reminder to avoid social gatherings and seek medical advice or testing if anyone shows symptoms of the virus.
Before the most recent cases, the number of new infections in China and South Korea had slowed to a trickle, with local transmission apparently stalled. While questions can be asked about the accuracy of the number of China, or the certainty anyone can have that all cases have been detected and contained in such a large country, South Korea’s response has been praised as one of the best globally, partly aided by a relatively small country size and easy to control border.
The most recent cases may be blips to be contained, but that the two countries that seem to be in the top again reporting domestic transmission must be a major concern.
Observers only need to look at Singapore – which at the beginning of April had less than 2,000 cases, and now it has more than 23,000 – Regarding the potential risk for relaxing too fast and assuming the battle is won when it has just begun. City states are increasing contact tracing, limiting movement, and even deploying robotic dogs to push social distance while trying to control the plague.
Will any lessons from these countries be learned in the West, where countries lag behind a few weeks in their epidemics, but many governments have tried little by little to relax the lockdowns, even though infection rates are very high?
Recent history does not recommend. Western governments are lagging behind in their response to the virus when it spread throughout Asia, despite clear evidence of a potential global pandemic. Asia’s experiences and suggestions have also been ignored on facial masks for months into a pandemic – a recent study by scientists in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom is just the latest to confirm that such a cover drastically reduces the rate of infection.
New infections in China and South Korea also have the risk of triggering a nihilistic response. If countries that appear to be at the peak of disease cannot help it, what can a country do with thousands of daily cases? But this is arguably the wrong takeaway – these countries had the worst outbreaks in the world in February, but managed to control them. That they see new cases as a lesson about the risk of relaxing too quickly, is not a reason to give up completely.
The message from Asia isn’t gloomy either. Vietnam and Thailand are discussing the potential of creating travel corridors, so confident they are that their domestic outbreaks are contained. New Zealand and Australia have agreed to do the same thing – although not for several months.
And Hong Kong, which managed to curb a second wave of viruses when the city appeared to be heading for Singapore, had passed 21 days without local infection, increasing the likelihood of being declared virus-free later this month.
It’s not over until it’s over. But it will finally end. What the Asian experience shows is that this will require ongoing vigilance, and lots of patience.