Israel must follow an Asian model to confront coronavirus

The reasons that advanced countries in Asia have seen their trajectory of infections reduced is due to a combination of factors.

Workers from a disinfection service company sanitize a street in front of a branch of the Shincheonji Church where a woman known as "Patient 31" attended a service in Daegu, South Korea, February 19, 2020. (photo credit: YONHAP VIA REUTERS)
Workers from a disinfection service company sanitize a street in front of a branch of the Shincheonji Church where a woman known as "Patient 31" attended a service in Daegu, South Korea, February 19, 2020.
(photo credit: YONHAP VIA REUTERS)
As the world struggles to confront the coronavirus pandemic, major differences have emerged between the approaches in Western countries and several major economies in Asia.
While Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the UK waited to confront the pandemic, governments in Singapore, South Korea, China and Japan were not only better prepared but confronted the threat earlier and with more clear policies.
This illustrates the continuing importance of Israel’s place in the world, between Western countries and Asia. Israel has increased economic and defense ties to Asia in recent decades – and during this pandemic, Jerusalem should look to successful models in confronting the virus.
The reasons that advanced countries in Asia have seen their trajectory of infections reduced is due to a combination of factors. First was planning. Due to a previous outbreak of SARS in 2002-2003, countries like Singapore were familiar with what to do. Experts note that they had isolation hospitals and legislation in place to deal with the threat.
In Singapore there was no lockdown, as European countries and Israel have tried. The Health Ministry worked rapidly to identify cases and quarantine clusters of them while the Transportation Ministry helped provide masks, according to reports.
The Communication Ministry flooded people with information, including on billboards and TV. The Education Ministry was ready with online educational materials, even though schools were not closed. Social distancing guidelines were followed, enabling people to go on with daily life rather than be caged in.
“People can go on with their daily life with some social distances,” Vernon Lee, the Health Ministry’s director of communicable diseases said in an article on Forbes.
South Korea also acted rapidly when a cluster of cases was identified in February. Daegu and Cheongdo cities were declared “special care zones” and largely locked down. But the rest of the country was not locked down and business did not grind to a halt.
Some industries even added jobs because of the need for more deliveries. Similarly, Fortune noted that while Western governments scrambled to respond, early travel restrictions and aggressive testing meant that “these policies have managed to contain the virus in Taiwan and Singapore, and reduce or slow infection rates in South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan.”
THE DIFFERENCE generally in all these areas, and especially China, is a rapid learning curve and a willingness to be flexible in some areas. As opposed to a total lockdown of the whole country and shutting down basically all work. China locked down Wuhan but instituted other measures elsewhere.
While China initially closed sites like the Great Wall, it reopened a section this month, two months after the outbreak in Wuhan. People received a “health QR code” through Alipay or WeChat apps connected to their IDs, according to CNN, which enables them to travel to some places. If they are flagged “green” as healthy, they are permitted entry to the reopened area of the Great Wall, for instance.
Overall, the approaches across Asian countries may be slightly different, but broad commonalities emerge. In Singapore and South Korea experts said lockdowns were not the right answer and daily life, as well as democratic traditions, were important to maintain.
Rapid response, and fully stocked ministries and hospitals were also in place.
China built new hospitals in Wuhan during the crisis and sent tens of thousands of health workers to deal with the outbreak. Most countries can’t do what China did, and its restrictions on many aspects of daily life or media won’t work for Israel. But the overall lessons from South Korea or Singapore represent models that Israel should learn from.
The chaotic response in Western countries has exposed many of the systems to be lacking basic preparations. High death tolls have resulted. Lockdowns are seen as a magic wand, but they are not what successful models in Asia showed to be the most successful. Rather, proactive planning, quick response, testing, tracing, quarantining cases, actual social distancing and clear communications were more effective.
Locking people in their homes across a whole country and turning parks and streets into ghost towns is simply not the most effective model, and Israel should hesitate before thinking that European countries provide a good example or even a normal trajectory for the approach to this virus.
Why Israel’s embrace of an Asian model is reasonable is because Israel is a country that blends aspects of East and West. This is not just about economics, history or culture. Israel has the capacity to construct temporary field hospitals, to conduct mass testing, to trace cases and quarantine, to easily close borders, and stop flights from its one major airport. These measures, along with social distancing and having societies that actually follow these, rules will work.
Israelis largely have a national ethos that trends toward doing things in groups, whether it is going to the army or various religious and national festivals. Social distancing can be pushed in the same way. Countries like South Korea, Japan and Singapore aren’t naturally socially distant: They tend to have crowded urban areas, but they adapted, so that they can continue normal life during a pandemic rather than end up with six months of being kept in their homes with economic blight as the aftermath. South Korea saw unemployment rise to only 4.3% due to the outbreak, while Israel’s rapidly rose to 20%.
Singapore passed a $48 billion budget to help with the impact of the pandemic. People can also receive cash payments for several months if they were impacted, and the government is helping with job training and filling openings in other sectors. While a million may soon be out of work in Israel due to the lockdown, countries like Singapore show that this is not the economic path forward.
This pandemic may mark a break historically for Israel. As the country struggles to get through the first month, it can pivot more away from countries whose models appear to have failed their societies. Israel has been on a long-term shift toward more connections to Asian markets in recent decades. This shift may be accelerated now.
If European and Western economies recover more slowly than Asian ones, it will make sense for Israel to move in that direction. This means it is not just about following a model of how to return to normal life, but also a model of preparation, education and benefiting economically.
A key conduit for such a shift could include closer relations with Gulf economies that will also struggle to return after the lockdowns. Israel has no relations with the Gulf but it has had economic ties in the past. Countries like the UAE are also weathering the virus storm, and they too have tried to act quickly to trace cases and increase testing, pushing a new “drive-in” testing model.
Here again Israel has areas it can share information about or learn from because Gulf economies, with their hi-tech, have commonalities to Israel, much like Asian economies. The pandemic may increase this shift once countries emerge from these border cut-offs and insulated cocoons in which they have placed themselves.