Covid-19, global pandemic, quarantine, 14 days, social and physical distancing – these are the most commonly used words in recent times. Whether we turn on the TV or browse through websites and social media, we are exposed to news of daily data and statistics of death, recovery, mistakes, what measures should have been taken, country managements and different practices around the world.
Emulating the best practices of the successful countries in managing Covid-19 pandemic is the best utilisation of such information. Otherwise, these will be limited to words only.
Bangladesh has struggled every day to become today's "middle-income country". Every year, natural calamity and various socio-economic drawbacks create unprecedented situations. Then, the unprepared world, along with Bangladesh, got confronted by this invisible enemy, this global disaster named Covid-19.
A few nations have shown incredible skill in managing Covid-19 outbreak, whereas many countries, even the most developed ones, failed at it miserably. It is always wise to learn from the winners, especially when it is all about saving lives and livelihood.
This article will have several volumes where I will compare the scenario of Bangladesh with specific countries. Today is all about early preparation and travel restrictions.
Let us begin with a small portion of statistics of the selected countries which represent the results of their pandemic management. The information is updated till July 13, 2020.
From the data table we can term Vietnam the top nation with world-class epidemic administration and zero death. 23 million people, seven deaths and less than 500 confirmed cases makes Taiwan a gold-star nation in the handling of Covid-19.
Similarly, in South Korea, nearly 90 percent of cases recovered. Thailand and Singapore were praised as shining examples of how to handle the virus through intelligent strategies.
Question may arise why India is being held up as an example with all those numbers! India portrays a very interesting case with very low infections and death rates until April - only 627 deaths.
Afterwards, the progress was disrupted for various reasons and is now the highest in Southeast Asia. Then comes our Bangladesh where numbers are swelling every day.
Let us deliberate on some points on the best practices to emulate and also observe the comparison.
Let us start with Vietnam. Despite having a border with China and a population of almost 97 million, Vietnam has documented only 372+ cases of Covid-19 with no death.
Vietnam was prepared for any kind of outbreak before it had its first case. The country's health ministry issued urgent administrative decisions on outbreak prevention by January 16 to 21. Vietnam recorded its first case on January 23 in Ho Chi Minh City.
Luckily, it was just two days before the Lunar New Year holidays and the government declared two weeks of mandatory holiday. Soon, Vietnam re-energised the "Emergency Epidemic Prevention Centre", established 40 mobile response teams and a few hospitals were ordered to prepare. All these were done by January, within 10 days.
Taiwan's newspapers had a common headline – "Taiwan's early mover advantage". The reason is that from the early days of the outbreak, businesses have been quick to turn their offline business online. Taiwan's big and moderate brands, from grocery shop to medication, everyone started exploring opportunities through complete digitalisation.
About a month ahead of the outbreak, South Korea's government also went through a preparatory plan to be ready for the upcoming global pandemic. To fasttrack testing, despite criticism, the government ordered laboratories to use "unapproved diagnostic kits" as it is a public health emergency.
As mentioned before, India is an exceptional case where till March 13, there were only 82 confirmed cases and one death. By April, the number rose to 34,868 with 627 deaths. India introduced thermal screening of passengers arriving from China in January in their seven airports.
In March, 20 ministries, including home, labour and aviation as well as the Prime Minister's Office, made containment plans with a few agenda. The agenda contained mass testing, avoiding panic situation, announcing insurances for healthcare workers, and managing food security etc.
India's Ministry of External Affairs cancelled the Indian Premier League; the opening match was scheduled for March 29. When the Covid-19 graph was showing a downward trend, experts opined that India's response, in comparison to previous disease outbreaks, had been relatively strong.
India's early success however began to unravel as the controlling mechanisms put in place started to loosen up day by day.
WHO declared coronavirus a global pandemic on March 11, whereas Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea started their preparations from December 2019, and most of the rest from January 2020. By January, most countries had already started counting Covid-19 patients while Bangladesh detected only three known cases on March 8.
This shows we had received way more time than any other nation to take precautions and to prevent the virus, but strategically, we could not restrict border transmissions and impose travel restrictions till late March.
Following up on the previous point, the administration of travel restrictions is a vital one.
Vietnam had three categories of travel restriction strategies – one, close travel monitoring; two, fully closed down border with China; and three, vigorous health checks at borders. The Vietnamese government suspended every foreign entry in March. The national returnees are subjected to medical check-ups and a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
Taiwan took a more proactive approach compared to other parts of Asia. It had cut off flights from China way before other Asian countries. It established "Centres for Disease Control" back in the SARS days, which also played a role in quarantining passengers of all direct flights from Wuhan since late December 2019.
Like every other country, South Korea required foreign returnees to take compulsory self-isolation for two weeks. It is compulsory to download "Advanced Corona Track App" which registers their symptoms on the days after their arrival.
By April, around 170,000 people downloaded the app and nearly 9,000 of them had reported symptoms of Covid-19. They were instructed to enter daily updates and based on that, requirements for hospitalisation or mandatory quarantine were decided.
Almost 10-17 percent of Thailand's GDP depends on tourism. This clearly shows the huge volume of international travellers in the country. The Thai civil aviation imposed travel restrictions from April 3, which was pretty late compared to most countries.
But they limited daily arrivals according to the state quarantine capacity. The travellers, country returnees, foreign students, and work permit holders received mandatory quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Thus, the spread was well-controlled.
According to news sources, the authorities at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport arranged alert mechanisms by screening travellers on January 22. To give a real-life example, I flew to Sri Lanka on February 22 and returned to Dhaka on February 28. Unfortunately, I did not see any of the mentioned alert mechanisms or special arrangements.
There were only two thermal scanner gates, where no one passed through in any organised manner. Rather, multiple passengers rushed through it. From mid-March, the civil aviation suspended flights from all European countries other than the United Kingdom, which worked as a pocket hole in bringing the virus into the country.
Passengers from highly-infected regions like China and Italy kept coming. One of the incidents, which went viral on social media and electronic media, was when 142 passengers returning from Italy were taken to the quarantine centre at Ashkona Hazi Camp after daylong chaos on March 15. Most of them were allowed to go home after protests, just with a seal on their hands that said: "Self-quarantined".
Health experts raised serious questions about the action and newspapers published investigative reports. Again, photos of those people travelling by trains, visiting malls and even attending social gatherings went viral.
This is the first part of the article where the focus is mostly on what went wrong. In the following parts, the emphasis will be on how to make it right through tracing, tests, lockdown policy and other examples that can be easily emulated.
From the examples of Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand, countries like India and Bangladesh have big scope to replicate the best practices. Simple measures taken by the victors can make us one too!
The author is Communication Manager of Gen Lab, working in different socio-development projects with EU, UNDP and embassies.