Why Is Adapting Important?
East Asian countries’ earlier strategies are not helping now.
Hong Kong mandates anyone traveling to the city to quarantine themselves for 2–3 weeks. The quarantine can be at the hotel, government-designated place, etc. The quarantine creates two worlds: One in which people are moving around freely, and another world in which people coming from another country must isolate themselves for 2–3 weeks before joining the first world.
Compulsory quarantine applies to anyone traveling to Hong Kong, although they may be fully vaccinated. Hong Kong, China, and other East Asian countries had adopted “Zero tolerance” or “elimination strategy” early in the pandemic to prevent COVID from ravaging their country. The strategy entailed bringing cases to zero and then keeping a low-case count by extensive testing, quarantining, and occasionally foisting social distancing norms.
This strategy is a huge success, and no one is debating it. Hong Kong’s COVID numbers stand out and indicate how successful the strategy has been: 12000 cases and exactly 205 deaths in a city of 7.5 million people.
But elimination strategy led to subtle problems that are now rearing their ugly head. Although the vaccine has been available for more than 100 days, Hong Kong has vaccinated just 17% of its population.
At the behest of the Chinese government, the Hong Kong government has been cracking down on the pro-democratic forces for two years. The curtailing of rights has created a rift between the government and the public. Moreover, the government has pushed Sinovac, Chinese manufactured, vaccine despite the secrecy surrounding the vaccine’s clinical trial data. The public see the push for Chinese manufactured vaccine as part of the bigger plan to curtail their rights.
Moreover, Biontech’s vaccine is available and has its clinical-trial data in the public domain. One would wonder why the Hong Kong government would push for a vaccine that doesn’t have its data public.
The Hong Kong government hasn’t made vaccination drive its priority. The government uses the pandemic to come harder on the dissenters rather than encourage people to take the jab. People don’t have the enthusiasm to get themselves vaccinated.
Downside of zero tolerance
The third reason which underscores the unintended result of the elimination strategy is complacency in people. With few cases and deaths, many people believe that vaccination can be delayed. As a result, Hong Kong has 17%, Vietnam 2%, and Taiwan 4% of the population vaccinated. Further, the last moment scramble for the vaccine is not helping these countries, and they are facing vaccine shortage.
Long term vs Short term
The Zero Covid strategy is best in the short term, but it cannot be sustained in the long run. These countries depended more on extended border closures, forced testing, quarantining, jail time, which was great in containing COVID, but one cannot continue with these policies forever.
The shift to a long-term strategy never happened. In the long run, the vaccine was always the way to go. As one of the experts stated, “Herd immunity through vaccination is the safest way out of the pandemic and back to normal life.” But over-reliance on zero covid measures has led to a situation in which the countries that were battered by COVID (the U.S. and Europe) are opening up, and the East Asian countries are worrying about delta variant. Vietnam has seen a surge in cases, and it’s getting difficult for the authorities to implement COVID zero strategy.
During the early phase and even now, the East Asian countries have done a great job, but a balanced approach in which vaccination was given equal importance would have prepared them better to return to normalcy.