Brits are getting increasingly fed up with their months-long lockdown. Europe is set to suffer from its worst recession since the Great Depression. Many Europeans could face the prospect of not being able to fly overseas during the summer holiday.
The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has hit parts of Europe like no other region in the world, bar the United States. A second wave later this year is worryingly likely. It will be very difficult for European governments to force their populations into a second lockdown.
A new report by a team of King’s researchers shows the way for Europe to prevent and manage a second wave of Covid-19 – as well as future pandemics. In short, Europe should learn from East Asia.
As of late May, the reported death rate per capita from Covid-19 is lower in East Asia than in other parts of the world.
With the exception of Wuhan, where the pandemic started, no country in the region has seen its healthcare system overwhelmed. As a result, there have been no mass casualties in elderly care homes as has been the case in several European countries.
And East Asian countries were successful in managing Covid-19 without resorting to psychologically and economically damaging full, countrywide lockdowns.
How has East Asia been able to manage the first wave of the pandemic? In short, thanks to strong institutions.
Following the SARS, H1N1 and/or MERS outbreaks, East Asian countries learnt their lessons and engaged in institutional capacity-building.
This involved updating legal frameworks to act quickly in case of a (potential) pandemic; developing long-term public health infrastructures and public health protocols; and building and thinking about the technologies that help governments to test, trace and treat their population.
Crucially, countries across East Asia put a specialised, non-politicised agency in charge of making sure that the lessons learnt were not forgotten. These are health or infectious disease agencies like the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
These agencies have used a range of mechanisms to maintain institutional memory, including regular mandatory pandemic plans, tabletop exercises, expert reports, and training and international cooperation.
Based on the experience of East Asian countries and to ensure that the UK and other European countries are able to deal with a second wave of Covid-19 and future pandemics, our report makes the following recommendations.
First, preparation. Governments need to start preparing for the next pandemic as soon as the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is over or becomes manageable. The main reason for this is that the speed and effectiveness of the response in the first days and weeks of a pandemic are critical.
Second, develop a playbook. This should include the lessons learnt that can be updated with new information, coming from both their country and from other countries, and that can be applied when a potential new pandemic breaks out.
Third, the legal framework. Governments need to establish a robust legal framework that can be activated in case of a (potential) pandemic. This legal framework should establish a clear, centralised command structure.
Fourth, invest in healthcare. The healthcare and public health system needs to be well resourced.
Governments need to build, up front, the necessary resources to a) implement public health measures to prevent the spread of an epidemic and identify and isolate cases effectively, and b) improve the clinical response and prevent that the healthcare system becomes overwhelmed during a pandemic.
Finally, technology: governments need to develop the necessary technologies to identify and trace infected cases, enforce quarantines, and disseminate information.
Two types of technology are critical: a) apps and websites for tracing, enforcing and information; and b) centralised, real-time databases of insurance claims or patient records that enable clinicians and public health agencies to identify cases and trace related contacts and recognise patients at highest risk.
The good news is that countries across Europe have the tools to learn from their East Asian counterparts and strengthen their capacities.
They can already implement some of these recommendations in the coming weeks and months, including strengthening the healthcare and public health system or deploying life-saving technologies.
Even better, institutional capacity-building is not as difficult to replicate as some of the other explanations given for East Asia’s success. These include a Confucian culture, more obedient social behaviour or a more authoritarian political system. Indeed, none of these explanations looks particularly plausible.
As the UK and other European governments start to think about a second wave of the current coronavirus pandemic, they should be carefully looking at the example of countries that have dealt with the first wave better. East Asia stands out in this respect. It thus makes sense to start the lessons there.
By Dr Ramon Pacheco Pardo, Reader in International Relations at King’s College London and the KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Free University of Brussels.