A couple, wearing protective facemasks amid fears about the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, walk past a temperature screening check at Changi International Airport in Singapore on Feb 27, 2020. (ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP)
Seven Southeast Asian countries have confirmed cases of virus outbreaks. According to the World Health Organization, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have reported a combined 194 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of March 2
Southeast Asian countries have reported high recovery rates for their patients. In Singapore, which has 106 confirmed cases, 78 have already been discharged, according to data from the country’s Ministry of Health. In Thailand, the WHO said 30 of the 42 confirmed cases have recovered from COVID-19. Vietnamese authorities said all of the 16 infected cases have been cured.
Jacqueline Lo Ying-Ru, head of mission and WHO’s representative to Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore, said China’s coordinated response and strong governance can be applied to Southeast Asian countries, but not at the scale that China has done.
“There are many lessons that Southeast Asia can learn from China's responses to COVID-19,” Khor Swee Kheng, a global health expert based in the University of Oxford, said.
Khor said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can learn from China’s effective mobilization of administrative, financial, human and political will to fight the outbreak. Strong political will has also led to rapid decision-making.
But at the same time, Khor cited the structural challenges posed by the outbreak. For example, it is also difficult to manage a huge public health system like that of China.
“When this outbreak is over, (ASEAN) and China must convene a separate health security working group to learn the lessons from COVID-19, and (use this to) prepare for the next epidemic,” he said.
Seven Southeast Asian countries have confirmed cases of virus outbreaks. According to the World Health Organization, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have reported a combined 194 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of March 2.
Lo said even in the midst of the outbreak, ASEAN has been coordinating with other members of the international community, exchanging information and best practices. She cited the Feb 3 special video conference between senior health officials of ASEAN and their counterparts in China, Japan and South Korea.
Participants to this conference shared information, technical updates, and challenges in containing the outbreak. They also took note of China’s proposal to hold a regional forum later this year so that they can exchange experiences, technical information, good practices and lessons about the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a press statement issued after the meeting.
Lo cited the lockdown of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, though not applicable to Southeast Asia, as an example of China’s decisive will.
Despite this new challenge, health experts praised Southeast Asia’s diagnostics and surveillance capacity and its massive information campaigns in calming down anxiety and curbing the spread of the disease.
Khor noted that countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand have enough resources and health professionals to contain the outbreak. But he noted that combating the outbreak of COVID-19 “remains a fluid situation, and there may be a need to upgrade our responses from containment to mitigation”.
Lo of WHO said information campaigns “communicated to the public how to protect themselves, eliminating fear and distrust”. It also complements other precautionary measures undertaken by Southeast Asian countries.
These include temperature checks at airports and offices and the creation of inter-agency task forces that assess the COVID-19 situation in the respective countries.
Michael Manio, program manager for emergency medicine at the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine of the University of Hong Kong, said these public information campaigns are necessary as most people at first are still unsure of how to keep themselves safe from the virus.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Information and Communications are both using TikTok to upload videos that educate the public on COVID-19
In Malaysia and Singapore, health officials have used their websites to post updated information on the confirmed cases and giving advice to the public on how to avoid contracting the virus. Health officials have also advocated good hygiene practices and advised people to avoid crowded places.
The Philippine health department has active Twitter and Facebook accounts where it shares the latest information and updates about COVID-19. The Philippine health authorities also livestream their regular press briefings.
Thailand has an online self-screening tool which is available in Thai, English and Chinese. Richard Brown, program manager for health emergencies at the WHO in Thailand, said the kingdom also has a wide network of health professionals and volunteers who can report suspected cases.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Information and Communications are both using TikTok to upload videos that educate the public on COVID-19. The Vietnamese government also fines people who spread false information and rumors about the disease.
Such campaigns have borne fruit, with people now more aware that better hygiene is one of their best protections against the virus.
For example, Sivakumar Kumaresan, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, has chosen to forego facial masks and wash his hands more often to avoid contracting COVID-19. He said wearing facial masks would hinder him while delivering lectures.
“I have been doing my best to stay abreast with the news, in particular scientific news on how the disease is spreading and what its symptoms are,” he said.
Kumaresan said he practices better hygiene – such as frequent hand washing, covering his mouth while sneezing and being more careful with whatever he touches – to keep healthy amid the virus outbreak.
HONG KONG NEWS