Now months into this global pandemic, the world is no closer to finding a medical cure for COVID-19. In fact, the only weapon that we have in this fight is a cultural one.
For the time being, all we can do to slow the spread of this horrid affliction is practice social distancing, and be extremely mindful of the risks we take in public. While COVID-19 hasn’t yet posted the sort of death toll that the common flu can in a year, it spreads much faster and more stealthily than that seasonal scourge. Given time, this strain of coronavirus would have a devastating impact on life as we know it.
Now, in nations who had seemingly flattened the curve and restarted their economies, the threat of a second wave of virus has arrived.
ON ANY DIGITAL dashboard tracking the spread of Covid-19, on any graphic comparing country-by-country case curves or death tolls, they were the champs. Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea—leaders there saw what was headed their way from China in the early days of the new coronavirus, before it became a pandemic. They remembered what happened two decades ago with SARS: People died, economies suffered. So they locked down their immigration hardest and soonest, deployed public health workers to follow up contacts of cases, got their hospitals shored up, and started publishing clear and consistent information and data. They flattened their curves before the rest of the world understood there would be curves to flatten. But in recent weeks, those curves have taken another chilling turn. The numbers of new cases in these places are creeping upward.
Hong Kong’s slow and steady case count started going up on March 18, and took an 84-case jump on March 28. After months of new cases barely brushing double digits, Singapore’s count jumped by 47 on March 16, and since then the city-state has had three days with more than 70 new cases each. Taiwan’s new-cases-in-a-day peaked at 5 in late January … and then jumped into the high 20s per day in, again, mid-March. South Korea had 86 new cases on April 3.
And while these numbers are still low, thankfully, the issue isn’t necessarily that the virus is organically regenerating. It’s being delivered back into safe areas from unsafe ones.
The real problem is that viruses don’t know what a border is. These countries are experiencing “reimportation” of the disease, infections that are the result of inbound travelers from places that aren’t winning their fight against Covid-19.
All these countries are, after all, on the same planet. In Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan, a few earlier cases from China made it through the barrier and got into the community. That resulted, throughout February, in community infections, or “unlinked local cases.” Those were worrying, but the overall spread was still slow—until the pandemic went transnational, and boomeranged back around. “There were just a small number, and then they kind of disappeared,” says Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. “But at the end of February and early March we started to get more imported cases from Europe. Hong Kong got a lot from Europe, the US, and other parts of the world, and Taiwan got a lot from the US.”
This is precisely why social distancing must remain a top priority around the planet, until such a time as we can collectively declare the virus null and void, or there is a widely-proven treatment or cure for COVID-19.
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