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How Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam contain the coronavirus outbreak

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Students eat their lunch on desks with plastic partitions as a preventive measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus at Dajia Elementary School in Taipei, Taiwan on April 29, 2020.

Sam Yeh | AFP | Getty Images

Several Asian economies appear to have contained the spread of the coronavirus within their borders, with the number of daily new cases slowing to a trickle in the last few weeks.

That’s a feat that few globally have achieved even as an increasing number of countries and territories started winding down containment measures to get their economies going again.

Public health experts have warned governments against resting on their laurels because new outbreaks could resurface even after the virus appears to be contained — as seen in China and South Korea.

Still, some Asian economies such as Taiwan and Hong Kong have for many days over the past month reported no new infections, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Those economies arrived at that stage via different routes, but experts pointed out that their governments were generally quick to enact containment measures and appeared to have learned from their experience handling the SARS outbreak nearly 20 years ago.

SARS, which stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome, first emerged in China in 2002 before affecting nearly 30 countries and territories, most of them in Asia, according to the World Health Organization.  

The coronavirus disease, which has been formally named Covid-19, was also first detected in China. Since its emergence last December, the virus has infected more than 4 million people across 188 countries and territories, according to Hopkins.  

Taiwan

  • Population size: Roughly 24 million
  • Covid-19 tally: 440 confirmed cases, 395 recoveries and seven deaths, according to Hopkins data as of May 17

Taiwan, a self-ruled island across a narrow strait from mainland China, is one economy that has avoided a large outbreak of the coronavirus disease. That’s despite its extensive air links with the mainland and not having access to vital information from the WHO.

A widely cited report published in March in the Journal of the American Medical Association attributed Taiwan’s ability to contain its outbreak partly to its use of big data and technology.

Specifically, the ways that Taiwan — which China claims as its province — uses technology include:

  • Integrating its national health insurance and immigration and customs databases, which allowed authorities to identify potential cases based on their travel history and clinical symptoms;
  • Requiring travelers to the island to complete an online health declaration form prior to their departure or upon arrival, so that they can be separated based on their risks of infection at immigration.

Those effort came on top of the Taiwanese government’s early decisions to close borders, ban exports of face masks and increase mask production domestically. Authorities encouraged the use of masks to reduce transmission — months before many others, including the WHO, recommended the same.

The effectiveness of those measures allowed Taiwan to avoid locking down its economy, with businesses largely operating as usual. Schools were closed for an extended winter break but reopened in late February with additional precautions in place.

Hong Kong

  • Population size: Around 7.5 million
  • Covid-19 tally: 1,055 confirmed cases, 1,024 recoveries and four deaths, according to Hopkins data as of May 17

Hong Kong’s government was relatively quick in tightening border controls, implementing strict quarantine, and introducing extensive social-distancing measures such as shutting government offices, closing schools and canceling large-scale events.

Measures were tightened when the city – a special administration region of China — experienced a surge in cases in March due to residents who returned from overseas. Authorities expanded Hong Kong’s testing capacity and closed gyms and restaurants — but stopped short of a lockdown or stay-at-home order.

Hong Kong has one of the highest testing rates in Asia. The 168,291 tests that it’s estimated to have conducted translates to around 22,448 tests per 1 million people, according to statistics site Worldometer.

But some experts said Hong Kong owes some of its success so far at containing its outbreak to its people who — among other things — started wearing protective masks early on even without any official directive to do so.

“Researchers studying Hong Kong’s approach have already found that swift surveillance, quarantine and social-distancing measures, such as the use of face masks and school closures, helped to cut coronavirus transmission,” read an article published in scientific journal Nature.

Earlier this month, the city started to reopen schools and other venues such as gyms, cinemas, and bars and pubs. The government also eased the limit on public gatherings from a group of four to eight.

Vietnam

  • Population size: More than 97 million
  • Covid-19 tally: 320 confirmed cases, 260 recoveries and no deaths, according to Hopkins data as of May 17

As a frontier economy that shares a border with China, Vietnam has punched above its weight in the way it responded to the outbreak, experts said.

The country was among the earliest to tighten border controls in January. The government also imposed large-scale quarantines, as well as closing schools and some businesses such as gyms and restaurants very early on.

Experts said it helped that Vietnam is a single party and “pervasive surveillance” state with an informant culture. That allowed authorities to effectively monitor, identify and isolate potential cases without having to spend its limited resources on mass testing programs such as those in South Korea and Singapore.

Despite the low number of infections, the government ordered a nationwide partial lockdown on April 1 that required people to stay indoors, suspended public transportation and limited gatherings. But it was the first Southeast Asian country to start easing those restrictions from late last month.

But in recent days, Vietnam reported a spike in new cases involving citizens placed under quarantine after returning from overseas.

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Hong Kong police fire pepper pellets to disperse protests over security bill

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Police use pepper spray projectile during a Lunch With You rally in Central district on May 27, 2020 in Hong Kong, China.

Anthony Kwan | Getty Images

Hong Kong riot police fired pepper pellets to disperse protesters in the heart of the global financial center on Wednesday, as new national security laws proposed by Beijing revived anti-government demonstrations.

Police also surrounded the Legislative Council where a bill was due to be debated that would criminalize disrespect of the Chinese anthem, amid soaring tensions over perceived threats to the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms.

People of all ages took to the streets, some dressed in black, some wearing office clothes, and some hiding their identities with open umbrellas in scenes reminiscent of the unrest that shook the city last year.

“Although you’re afraid inside your heart, you need to speak out,” said Chang, 29, a clerk and protester dressed in black with a helmet respirator and goggles in her backpack.

A call to gather around the Legislative Council was scrapped due to a heavy presence of riot police.

Many shops, bank branches and office buildings closed early. Dozens of people were seen rounded up by riot police and made to sit on a sidewalk.

Protests have returned to the streets of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong after Beijing proposed national security laws aimed at tackling secession, subversion and terrorist activities. The planned laws could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in the semi-autonomous city.

The move triggered the first big street unrest in Hong Kong in months on Sunday, with police firing tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.

The United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and others have expressed concerns about the legislation, widely seen as a potential turning point for China’s freest city and one of the world’s leading financial hubs.

Police said they had arrested at least 16 people on Wednesday, aged 14-40, for alleged crimes including possession of offensive weapons, possession of tools for illegal use and dangerous driving.

Protesters in a downtown shopping mall chanted “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times” and “Hong Kong independence, the only way out”, but dispersed as lookouts shouted a warning to “go shopping!” at the sight of police vans outside.

One protester was seen with a placard reading “one country, two systems is a lie”, referring to the political system put in place at Britain’s 1997 handover of the city to China that is meant to guarantee Hong Kong’s freedoms until at least 2047.

“I’m scared … if you don’t come out today, you’ll never be able to come out. This is legislation that directly affects us,” said Ryan Tsang, a hotel manager.

Chinese authorities and the Beijing-backed government in Hong Kong say there is no threat to the city’s high degree of autonomy and the new security laws will be tightly focused.

“It’s for the long-term stability of Hong Kong and China, it won’t affect the freedom of assembly and speech and it won’t affect the city’s status as a financial center,” Hong Kong Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung told reporters. “It would provide a stable environment for businesses.”

Hong Kong’s most prominent tycoon, Li Ka-shing, said in a statement security laws were within every nation’s right, but Hong Kong had the “mission-critical task” to maintain trust in “one country, two systems”.

Hong Kong media reported Beijing had expanded the scope of the draft security legislation to include organisations as well as individuals.

The law was being revised to cover not just behavior or acts that endanger national security, but also activities, broadcaster RTHK and the South China Morning Post reported.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday said the United States this week would announce a strong response to the planned security legislation for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong shares slide

The U.S.-China Business Council (USCBC) urged “all leaders to take those steps necessary to de-escalate tensions, promote economic recovery and the rule of law, and preserve the ‘one country, two systems’ principle.”

Asian shares slipped over rising tensions between the United States and China. Hong Kong shares led declines with the Hang Seng falling 0.46%, though it kept a bit of distance from a two-month low touched on Monday. 

Protesters and pro-democracy politicians say Hong Kong’s National Anthem Bill, which aims to govern the use and playing of the Chinese national anthem, represents another sign of what they see as accelerating interference from Beijing.

The bill carries penalties of up to three years jail and/or fines of up to HK$50,000 ($6,450) for those who insult the anthem. It also orders that primary and secondary school students in Hong Kong be taught to sing the “March of the Volunteers”, along with its history and etiquette.

“As long as citizens don’t disrespect the anthem law, there’s no need to worry, I hope people can discuss the bill rationally,” Chief Secretary Cheung said.

The anthem bill is set for a second reading on Wednesday and is expected to become law next month.

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Sweden’s no-lockdown could mean it’s excluded from Nordics reopening

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People sit on terrace tables at cafe in Stockholm, Sweden, on Thursday, March 26, 2020. Sweden is starting to look like a global outlier in its response to the coronavirus.

Bloomberg

As Sweden’s Nordic neighbors look to reopen borders and lift travel restrictions, worries over Stockholm’s controversial approach to the coronavirus has increased concerns that it could be excluded from those plans.

Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde said Tuesday that the EU had cautioned against discriminating when opening borders, and that any decision to exclude the country from an agreement between the Nordic states would be a political decision.

“It is a very complicated issue, and I think that all politicians in every country should also look at the long-term effect before they take very politically-motivated decisions,” she told reporters at a briefing in Stockholm Tuesday, according to Reuters.

Linde’s comments come after Cyprus said it would not permit direct flights from Sweden when it opens up on June 9, but would allow inbound flights from Norway, Denmark and Finland.

There is a nervousness over Sweden because, unlike its neighbors and most of Europe, it kept much of its public and social life open as the coronavirus spread throughout Europe in late February and March.

The government allowed Sweden’s bars, restaurants and schools for under-16s to remain open, although it banned mass gatherings and visits to elderly care homes (which have seen acute outbreaks of the virus), while advocating social distancing, working from home and good personal hygiene. 

The strategy has been controversial and attracted global attention, and some criticism. Data shows that the country of around 10 million has recorded 34,440 cases and 4,125 deaths. This is far higher than its Nordic neighbors, which each have populations of around 5 million; Norway has recorded 235 deaths, Denmark has recorded 563 deaths and Finland has reported 312 deaths.

Allowing for different testing regimes and attributions of the cause of death, according to ourworldindata.org, Sweden’s daily confirmed Covid-19 deaths per million inhabitants, on a rolling 7-day average, stood at 4.68 on Tuesday, higher than the total for the U.K. (at 4.46) and the U.S. (at 3.40) as well as Russia and Brazil, which have the largest numbers of coronavirus cases in the world.

Nervous neighbors

Given the data, it’s perhaps not surprising that Sweden’s neighbors are cautious about the reopening of borders and lifting of travel restrictions, although essential travel, such as travel for work, has continued between the countries throughout lockdown, albeit at a lower level. 

Norway and Finland are set to decide on the lifting of travel restrictions on or by June 14.  Finland is not commenting on other countries’ strategies, the Foreign Ministry told CNBC when asked for comment, but pointed to Finland’s explicit strategy to prevent the spread of the virus in the country and told CNBC “it is monitoring the corona situation very carefully and is ready to react quickly if the situation suddenly gets worse.”

Norway directed CNBC’s request for comment to its Ministry of Justice, where no one was immediately available for comment. Meanwhile, Denmark’s Foreign Ministry told CNBC that, as of Monday, the country was “expanding the possibility for travelers from the Nordic countries and Germany to enter into Denmark.”

“It will be possible for residents from these countries to travel into Denmark if they have a worthy purpose for entering, which can now also include (visiting) grandparents, grandchildren, partners, ownership of a vacation residence in Denmark or if they are undertaking business travel to Denmark,” the ministry said in a statement to CNBC. On May 29, the Danish government will present a plan for a controlled and gradual revision of the temporary border controls and travel advice for the summer period, the ministry added.

Like its neighbors, Denmark was tight-lipped on its neighbor Sweden, saying: “Unfortunately, we can’t comment further on the situation in Sweden.” Sweden itself has told its citizens not to travel abroad until July 15 unless absolutely essential.

Defense of the strategy

With global attention on Stockholm’s approach, Sweden’s Linde defended the country’s more laissez-faire approach, which has been led by its Public Health Agency and chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell.

“Transmission is slowing down, the treatment of COVID-19 patients in intensive care is decreasing significantly, and the rising death toll curve has been flattened,” Linde told reporters, insisting that while “there is no full lockdown of Sweden … many parts of the Swedish society have shut down.”

Tegnell has defended his strategy too, telling CNBC on April 22 that Stockholm was heading toward herd immunity “within weeks,” although an official study released last week showed that only 7.3% of Stockholm’s inhabitants had developed Covid-19 antibodies by the end of April.

The country’s former chief epidemiologist, Annika Linde, who oversaw Sweden’s response to swine flu and the Sars epidemic, said earlier this week that the country’s approach to the epidemic, one aiming at herd immunity, had been mistaken.

“I think that we needed more time for preparedness. If we had shut down very early … we would have been able, during that time, to make sure that we had what was necessary to protect the vulnerable,” Linde told Britain’s The Observer newspaper on Sunday.

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UK Conservative Party slides in polls amid Dominic Cummings crisis

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Number 10 special advisor Dominic Cummings arrives home in London on May 25, 2020.

TOLGA AKMEN

The U.K.’s ruling Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has seen its lead in polls narrow further, as a battle over a top political adviser continues to dominate headlines and public debate in Britain.

A YouGov survey for The Times newspaper, published Wednesday, showed that the Conservative’s lead over opposition party Labour had slipped nine percentage points in a week. Support for the Tories fell four points to 44%, while support for Labour rose five points to 38%, compared with a week ago.

“Following a tough week dominated by the actions of the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, the Conservatives have seen their 15 point lead over Labour slip to just 6 points,” YouGov noted of the poll, which surveyed 1,629 adults between May 25-26.

Pressure is mounting on Boris Johnson as the political battle intensifies over his closest aide Dominic Cummings, who is accused of breaking U.K. lockdown rules.

Cummings, an influential and controversial figure at the heart of government, has refused to apologize for making a 260-mile trip from London to the north of England, at the height of coronavirus crisis after lockdown restrictions had been imposed.

Cummings has defended his decision to travel, saying the trip to stay with family in Durham was within the rules because he wanted to ensure childcare for his young son in case he and his wife fell ill with coronanvirus. His wife had displayed symptoms of the virus.

The visit was admissible under the “exceptional circumstances” allowed under the government’s lockdown measures, he said at an unusual press briefing dedicated to the matter on Monday.

Despite attempts to explain the circumstances around the trip, Cummings’ actions have angered the British public at a time when most people feel they have made great, and sometimes heartbreaking, personal sacrifices during the lockdown.

So far, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended his aide, yet the political storm surrounding Cummings and his refusal to resign has led to a revolt within the Conservative Party. On Tuesday, one junior minister resigned and now 38 Conservative members of parliament (MPs) are calling for Cummings to go.

The furor over the aide is not only damaging the government’s public standing — it is also seen to have undermined its messaging when it comes to the coronavirus lockdown, still largely in place. According to YouGov, 70% of the public believe that the Cummings crisis will make it harder for the government to get future lockdown messaging across to the public.

A separate survey on Tuesday, by polling firm Savanta, showed Johnson’s approval rating stood at -1%, down from 19% on Friday. It’s poll also showed approval in the government in negative territory, falling 16 percentage points in a day to -2%.

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