This article originally appeared on VICE Asia.
As the world battles the spread of COVID-19, entire countries and their healthcare systems are facing unprecedented challenges in outbreak management. Coronavirus testing is one of them.
“The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate,” said World Health Organisation Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a media briefing on March 16.
Unfortunately, not every country is convinced or capable of carrying out extensive coronavirus testing on its citizens. In Asia, there are countries on both ends of the spectrum.
Based on data gathered by Statista, the Philippines and India are two of the countries that have been testing the least in Asia. Meanwhile, those that have tested the most are South Korea and Taiwan — places that have been cited for proper management of the outbreak.
While South Korea was testing 5,567 for every 1 million people as of March 17, India was only testing four for every 1 million as of March 13. The stark contrast of these figures raises serious questions about the true extent of the coronavirus spread in places that are not testing enough.
In India, authorities believe that coronavirus test results seem to show no evidence of community transmission. But experts believe it’s because there just haven’t been enough tests administered to register the full scale of the coronavirus spread in the country.
Here, the only people who are eligible for testing are those who have returned from high-risk countries, contacts of infected cases, and health workers exhibiting coronavirus symptoms. After having received much slack for having just 52 testing centres for the world's second most populated country (With 1.3 billion people), the government finally roped in some private labs across the country to allow for more testing.
There are now 425 cases, 8 deaths, and 24 recoveries in India.
According to data from the Philippines' Department of Health, the country was only testing nine per million of the population as of March 17. The are about 109 million people in the Philippines.
Previously faced with dwindling testing kits, the Philippines has boosted its testing capacity after receiving testing kit donations from countries such as China and South Korea.
However, there are complaints about the unfair use of these testing kits. While health secretary Francisco Duque III claimed that COVID-19 testing kits were limited, some government officials were tested even though they did not show any symptoms of the coronavirus.
There are now 462 cases, 33 deaths, and 18 recoveries in the Philippines.
From January to March, the coronavirus spread to almost every Southeast Asian country. So it was highly suspicious that Indonesia, with a population of 270 million, had not reported a single case of the coronavirus until March 2. Despite speculation by experts about undetected coronavirus cases in Indonesia, the country’s health minister responded that the absence of cases was “all because of prayers.”
It was later revealed that, until February, Indonesia did not have any testing kits for COVID-19. They had been relying on testing kits that could only detect diseases in the coronavirus family, such as MERS, SARS, and the common flu.
On March 13, Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo also admitted that the government had initially withheld information about the coronavirus infections in the country to allay public fears about the epidemic. But instead of soothing public anxieties, the lack of transparency actually exacerbated paranoia.
There are now 579 cases, 49 deaths, and 30 recoveries in Indonesia.
Unlike Indonesia and India, fears of overwhelming a fragile healthcare system is the reason for limited coronavirus testing in Japan, which has a population of about 126 million.
According to Reuters, Japan is utilising just one-sixth of its testing capacity. While it can actually administer 7,500 tests daily, it has only conducted an average of 1,190 tests per day because of an extreme rationing strategy.
“Just because you have capacity, it doesn’t mean that we need to use that capacity fully,” a Japanese health ministry official said on March 17, Reuters reported. “It isn’t necessary to carry out tests on these people who are just simply worried.”
There are now 1,101 cases, 41 deaths, and 235 recoveries in Japan.
Testing for the coronavirus is extremely important.
“You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected,” said the WHO’s Tedros. “We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case.”
“The only way to know the severity spectrum is to test large numbers of people,” Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University’s Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the South China Morning Post.
South Korea’s broad-based testing strategy has been lauded by many as a shining example of outbreak management. At the height of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea in late February to early March, more than 800 new cases were reported in a single day. Since then, the number of daily new cases has dropped to less than 100.
Many believe that South Korea’s extensive testing strategy and rigorous quarantine efforts have drastically slowed down the spread of the coronavirus in the country, all without the aggressive lockdown measures seen in other places.
Drive-through clinics have been set up in South Korea to provide fast and convenient coronavirus testing in the comfort of people’s own cars. These drive-through clinics are now emulated in countries such as the United States, France, and Spain.
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