While the United States and EU claim to have the top health products and systems in the world, some Asian countries have solved the pandemic problem better than the West. In these Asian markets, while the economy has slowed a bit, it is still doing well and growing. Elective hospital procedures have continued as usual and these markets are still great places to sell advanced Western devices. What have they done to be this successful?
Taiwan, a small island with 24 million people, only 81 miles off the coast of China has only had about 500 cases with less than 20 deaths. Taiwan moved quickly after hearing about the pandemic in China in December. Starting in late December, Taiwan started to closely monitor Wuhan visitors and Taiwanese people that had recently visited that city. In late January, they started the Central Epidemic Command Center and implemented a travel ban from China. At the same time, they banned the export of face masks and ramped up production eight-fold in three months. Taiwanese TV and radios broadcast health information frequently. Virologists, epidemiologists and infectious disease doctors were broadcasting these messages, instead of politicians.
The country took the cell phone numbers of visitors and implemented strict contact tracing. Since one’s cell phone was linked to the National Insurance Database, it was easy to track others that had symptoms. Since the country has universal healthcare, people did not need to decide if the cost of seeing doctors or going to hospitals was an economic decision. Today, the Taiwanese government rations and provides masks every week to pharmacies for its citizens. It also provides food, books and other staples weekly to people in quarantine, so they do not have to suffer alone.
With about 55 million citizens, South Korea was initially clobbered by COVID-19 at the Shincheonji Church in Daegu, 150 miles from Seoul, which has about half the country’s population. Nevertheless, the government requested all the church members’ names and started contact tracing immediately. South Korea responded well and today has less than 500 deaths. Similar to Taiwan, Korea instituted heavy testing, tracing and isolation. Very quickly they set up extensive drive-through testing, an IGT system (information and communication technology) to track new arrivals, and sent their sickest to hospitals and those with mild cases to life treatment centers where food, safety gear and other supplies were provided free of charge. Also, medical professionals led the charge (not politicians), and via legislation called—Korean control and prevention—allowed the government to use private data from 28 businesses, credit cards, GPS, etc. to monitor sickness and aid in prevention. In Korea, generally, people trust their government when it comes to public health issues, and their experience with MERS helped early response.
Vietnam, with about 95 million people and much poorer than Korea and Taiwan, also did remarkably well in the face COVID-19—despite their almost 900-mile border with China. With a one-party state (Communism), Vietnam acted quickly and decisively. On January 16, the national government and Ministry of Health spread the word of the virus to other government entities throughout the country. On January 23, it set up a steering committee on epidemic prevention. On February 9, it had an extensive conference call with the WHO, and in mid-February, it closed its schools. Although they had significantly fewer tests than Korea and Taiwan, early on they developed their own affordable tests, and more than 110 labs could perform real-time polymerase chain reaction testing. Confirmed COVID-19 cases were under 350 cases, and the country recorded 0 deaths. Government-run media campaigns worked with three private telecom companies and sent out more than 3 billion messages on the disease. The government also set up “rice ATMs” for poor people and emphasized the country’s health over economic growth.
So, although COVID-19 started in China and has seriously impacted the economy and population there, China is now rebounding from the pandemic as factories open, and people return to their offices for work. Even Japan, which has tested very few people and has had less social distancing than other developed international countries, has less than 1,000 deaths. Singapore is now initiating a simple wearable device for its nearly 6 million population, that can be put in one’s pocket or attached to a lanyard to track people exposed to the virus. In short, almost all of the other Asian countries have done better with the virus than the United States and EU. With a rising middle class and more money to spend going forward on healthcare, these Asian markets still present the best growth opportunities for Western medtech companies.