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East Asia shows the way out of lockdown

Dr Ramon Pacheco-Pardo's new report examines how the UK can prevent and manage the next pandemic by adapting lessons learnt from East Asia. Here he discusses how these countries were able to successfully manage the pandemic without going into full lockdown and how the UK can implement these measures.

The UK has lockdown fatigue. After seven weeks at home, full parks across the country show that British people are starting to ignore guidelines to stay at home. A second lockdown would risk social revolt.

The example of East Asia shows that lockdowns are not necessary to manage the coronavirus. Countries can use appropriate technology and a well-defined legal framework to manage pandemics.

Technology, in particular, can be swiftly developed and rolled out to trace who might have come in contact with infected people. Mobile phone apps such as Singapore’s TraceTogether and smartphone tracking, as Taiwan has done, help to identify people who might have been infected. This way they can get tested.

East Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan also have used centralised, real-time time databases of their healthcare records. They allow clinicians and public health agencies to identity cases, trace related contacts, and recognise high risk patients.

This information can be used to determine who gets priority treatment. Thanks to the NHS, the UK is in a position to follow the example of East Asian countries in this area.

Technology can also be used to enforce quarantines. It would be possible to follow on the steps of Hong Kong, Singapore or South Korea, which have used apps and text messages to ensure that quarantined people stay at home.

Certainly, there needs to be a discussion about the right balance between privacy and data protection, on the one hand, and the need for governments to obtain information, on the other.

This is where pre-existing and well-defined legal frameworks kick in. Across East Asia, the law gives governments special powers in case of pandemic. But they also limit what governments can do with the data, both during an emergency and once it is over.

These frameworks were developed over the years, and involved discussions about privacy. The UK does not have this luxury in the midst of the current coronavirus pandemic. The government could adapt one of the frameworks that exist across East Asia, and follow up with a UK-specific framework once the pandemic is over.

In the case of robust democracies such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, a vibrant civil society prevents the abuse of technology by the government. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the governments of these countries to use the data gathered in a harmful way. There is no reason to think that it would be different in the UK.

Technology has to work hand-in-hand with humans though. Across East Asia, scores of specially trained professionals and police people make use of the information gathered via apps or smartphone tracking to contact potentially infected people. They are the contact tracers.

This is a crucial point. As the UK debates which contact tracing app to use, the government also needs to ensure that there are sufficient qualified professionals who can take swift action. Otherwise there will be little to do with the data gathered.

Countries across East Asia are confident that they can withstand a second and more waves of the coronavirus without having to lock their citizens and close their economies. Restaurants and shops are open. Tourist sites are crowded.

The UK can adapt some lessons from across East Asia instead of potentially having to resort to an economically and socially unviable second lockdown. When a new wave of coronavirus infections arrives, technology and the law can help.

In this story

Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Head of the Department of European & International Studies and Professor of International Relations

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