Besides baring the capacities of leaders and healthcare systems around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly reflected each country’s level of preparedness, their citizens’ trust, and overall unity. The actions of governments and citizens have put their respective countries on different roads, navigating how best to respond to the public health crisis and its associated uncertainties.
These different paths were tackled in COVID 19: Through the Global Lens, a webinar hosted last June 21 by Project Insight, a youth organization hosting online events featuring industry leaders and experts, in partnership with the University Student Government Office of the Vice President for External Affairs. During the discussion moderated by Leonard Lim, Project Insight’s Lead curator, panelists from five countries—Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Mongolia, and New Zealand (NZ)—shared how their respective communities managed to contain the spread of COVID-19, highlighting their best practices in responding to the health crisis.
Fearing further spread, countries affected by the pandemic have either focused on intensive testing and case-based interventions or shut down all kinds of activities by implementing lockdown or stay-at-home policies to contain localized outbreaks. Different communities’ responses and decisions have yielded varying results, with some faring better or worse than others.
“Our hospitals are always crowded; we do not have enough isolation rooms…We don’t have [an] adequate number of infectious disease specialists and critical care specialists,” revealed Dr. Kumthorn Malathum, president of the Infectious Disease Association of Thailand.
Meanwhile, according to Health Promotion and Communication Service Director Dr. Beverly Ho from the Department of Health, the Philippine outbreak involves “a mix of community transmission as well as imported cases”. A significant barrier has been “the longstanding underinvestment in the health sector, primarily on health human resources,” she furthered, resulting in the inability to conduct proper contact tracing and procure the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), among other problems.
NZ also encountered rough roads during the initial stages of the pandemic. Despite the country having a national pandemic reserve, “there were gaps in planning how PPE would be procured and distributed,” said Dr. Valerie Wong-Tan, Account Manager for PPE of the Ministry of Health, citing that the manufacturing of the necessary supplies relied on China’s then-closed factories.
Although countries soon established programs, processes, and policies—such as NZ’s centralized system for monitoring PPE stocks—some immutable issues, like geography, continued to pose problems. With travel and movement restrictions in place in archipelagic Indonesia, difficulties in communication and transport to isolated provinces and islands hindered the distribution of health supplies and medical personnel, disclosed Dr. Sally Nasution, President of the Indonesian Society of Internal Medicine. Although, their isolation also helped reduce the risk of viral transmission.
Having the inside track
On the best practices that have worked for them, most mentioned the benefits of early action, like Mongolia’s decision to shut its borders with China as early as January 26. “[Even] without having a [single] confirmed case in Mongolia, we just closed everything,” stated Dr. Mandukhai Ganbat from the Mongolian National University of Medical Sciences. “[As of] June 21st, in my country, confirmed cases [are only at] 204…all [these] cases are imported cases from other countries.”
Meanwhile, Malathum stated that Thailand concentrated its efforts in performing “very effective contact tracing” measures. He further remarked, “I think we are lucky enough to be able to control the disease [to] not reach the slum areas—if that happened, [it would] be a nightmare for us.”
For NZ, early lockdown and clear communication had been key. “At each level, it was already defined what was expected of us or what it is we should be doing…how we should respond in different situations,” Wong-Tan said on the country’s four-level alert system, emphasizing how television commercials, radio broadcasts, leaflets, and online platforms were all utilized to provide updates and reminders to the public. “The information is everywhere. It was clear. You cannot miss the information basically.”
The constant updates, transparency of information, and clarity of instructions meant that “every New Zealander knew what to do” and “each sector knew what was the goal that they were working toward,” allowing them to follow the prescribed guidelines, as Wong-Tan discussed. However, compliance to policy was also facilitated by providing other forms of support, such as wage subsidies—NZD 585.80 per week for a full-time employee or NZD 350.00 per week for a part-time employee, applicable to any business anticipating a revenue drop—tax reliefs, and additional salary for medical frontliners, among others. Similar financial assistance programs were offered as well by other countries.
Moreover, the speakers discussed collaboration and individual efforts by their citizens, acknowledging that the government could not have possibly done everything on their own. For the Philippines, “the response has always been intersectoral in nature,” Ho pointed out. “When the DOH came up with the general guidelines, all the other national government agencies used that as a baseline to develop key policies for their own sectors.”
Thais, on the other hand, have established temporary storage facilities in their villages. “People would bring in food” so those who “lost their source of income [and who] do not have anything to eat…can pick up what they [need] so they could survive,” Malathum discussed.
In NZ, supermarkets implemented online queueing services and registering for time slots in advance. “When it’s your turn, you would receive a notification…You just pick [the groceries] up and go home; it’s just less exposure to other people,” Wong-Tan explained, adding that student volunteers ran errands on behalf of those needing assistance.
End of the line
Currently, countries are focusing on gradually opening their doors and getting back on track, while following health standards—enforcing policies like physical distancing and the wearing of masks—to prevent large spikes in case numbers. “After the curve, we are already on that next step. It’s basically locals supporting locals to revive the economy,” Wong-Tan said as NZ has lifted much of its restrictions.
Reiterating that public safety remains a priority, Malathum emphasized, “We have to educate people to know what to practice and how to practice [these measures] properly and regularly, so that they can be safe…With fewer cases, the healthcare system will be able to handle [the outbreak].”