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The East-West Divide in COVID-19 Control

Summary:
The public health response will be decisive in stopping the COVID-19 coronavirus before it devastates entire populations in the West and around the world. And the right approach requires that the United States and Europe learn what we can from East Asia as rapidly as possible. NEW YORK – East Asian countries are outperforming the United States and Europe in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the fact that the outbreak began in China, to which the rest of East Asia is very closely bound by trade and travel. The US and Europe should be learning as rapidly as possible about the East Asian approaches, which could still save vast numbers of lives in the West and the rest of the world. An important starting point

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The public health response will be decisive in stopping the COVID-19 coronavirus before it devastates entire populations in the West and around the world. And the right approach requires that the United States and Europe learn what we can from East Asia as rapidly as possible.

NEW YORK – East Asian countries are outperforming the United States and Europe in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the fact that the outbreak began in China, to which the rest of East Asia is very closely bound by trade and travel. The US and Europe should be learning as rapidly as possible about the East Asian approaches, which could still save vast numbers of lives in the West and the rest of the world.

An important starting point for comparison is the number of confirmed cases and COVID-19 deaths per million population, shown in the first columns of the accompanying table for April 7. It is as if the two regions are in different worlds. Europe and the US are engulfed in the pandemic: confirmed cases per million range from 814 (UK) to 3,036 (Spain), and deaths per million range from 24 to 300. In the East Asian countries, confirmed cases per million range from three (Vietnam) to 253 (Singapore), and deaths per million from 0 to four.

East Asian countries are not systematically undercounting either cases or deaths relative to their Western counterparts. Both regions have tested a similar proportion of their populations, as shown in the third column of the table.

The East-West Divide in COVID-19 Control

Importantly, the differences between the two regions do not reflect firmer economic lockdowns in East Asia. Google has recently published fascinating data on the reduction of activity in various sectors of the economy. Google’s results regarding the retail sector are shown in the fourth column of the table. The disruptions to normal life (comparing the end of March with a baseline of January 3 to February 6) are less severe in East Asia.

The disparity between East Asian and Western countries’ public-health and economic outcomes reflects three key differences between the regions. For starters, the East Asian countries were far better prepared for a new disease outbreak. The 2003 SARS outbreak was a wake-up call, and frequent waves of dengue fever in several East Asian countries reinforced the message. In Europe and the US, concerns over SARS, Ebola, Zika, and dengue fever seemed far away, abstract, and (with the exception of SARS) mainly “tropical.” The result of this greater awareness was a much higher national alert level throughout the region when China first publicly reported an unusual clutch of pneumonia cases in Wuhan on December 31, 2019.

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