The U.S. has just reached a grim milestone: at least 100,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. However, some of the hardest-hit areas and cities in the country are starting to flatten the curve as the number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to decline in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California. Nearly every state in the union has announced plans to reopen over the next few weeks, but the new waves of the virus could bring all this progress to a crashing halt.
Health officials all over the world are tracking the spread of the virus as it moves from one continent to the next. Several countries that were previously thought to have the virus under control, including South Korea and Singapore, now find themselves rushing to contain new outbreaks. Find out where the virus is headed and what these trends can tell us about the future of the pandemic.
The New Epicenter of the Virus
Earlier this week, the World Health Organization classified the Americas as the new epicenter of the pandemic. The U.S. currently has the world’s highest death count, representing around 25% of all COVID-19-related deaths, and countries across Latin and Central America are starting to feel the pain. The number of cases has been skyrocketing in Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, and Peru, with estimates doubling around every two weeks.
The Middle East is also suffering from new outbreaks. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are all facing new upticks in confirmed cases. Health officials say these trends could be the result of expanded testing programs, but others are worried the virus could be spreading faster than once thought, leaving no part of the planet untouched.
However, the spread of the virus is slowing across Europe as Britain, France, and other countries prepare to reopen.
Several nations have been touted for their ability to contain the virus early on in the global pandemic, including China, South Korea, and Singapore, but new data suggests they may be taking two steps forward and one step back.
- How China Contained the Virus:
China used draconian techniques to keep residents of the city of Wuhan in their homes; some were even sealed inside to prevent the spread of the virus. Individuals were also encouraged to snitch on one another if they started showing COVID-19-like symptoms. Sick individuals were carted away to government isolation wards.
- What Went Wrong:
China drew condemnation and praise for these harsh tactics, but now new cases are starting to trickle into the country along the Russian border. The country is doing everything it can to test and trace new coronavirus patients, but doctors have noticed that the virus seems to have changed, compared to the start of the outbreak back in December of last year. New patients seem to carry the virus for longer periods of time. It’s also taking them longer to test negative for the virus than previously thought.
- How South Korea Contained the Virus:
South Korea used a mix of contact tracing, drive-thru testing, and cellphone tracking to keep the virus at bay. Residents were largely quick to comply with these regulations. Individuals could have their test results in just 24 hours without having to go into the doctor’s office. Most of the country uses a cellphone for just about everything, including paying for goods and services, accessing news and information, and travel. This helped the country keep track of its citizens while also limiting the exchange of cash and other physical goods.
- What Went Wrong:
The country was in the process of getting back to normal, with nightclubs and bars starting to reopen, but a new outbreak has since put that plan on ice. A man recently tested positive for the virus and officials discovered he had already visited three nightclubs that evening, essentially endangering all of Seoul, the country’s capital.
Contact tracers quickly tried to hunt down thousands of people who visited these clubs, but it was too little too late. The country has already reported 79 new cases of COVID-19 and some are calling for a new shutdown.
- How Singapore Contained the Virus:
Singapore drew praise for eradicating the virus in a matter of months. The country swiftly closed its borders to limit the spread, while meticulously tracing the close contacts of every infected individual. In addition to their location, the country has been tracking how these individuals spend their time and how many people they meet along the way. For example, tracers were able to quickly identify a group of singers that shared a song, and several respiratory droplets. They were able to swoop in and ask individuals to quarantine as they started infecting local gyms and churches, thus limiting the spread.
This has allowed the country to stay several steps ahead of the pandemic, but its luck is starting to change.
- What Went Wrong:
Singapore’s caseload more than doubled at the end of April as workers started gathering in tight spaces and dormitories. Migrant workers and day laborers tend to share cramped living spaces, but it seems these groups were congregating without the government’s knowledge. These groups, much of them poor or living in poverty, seemed to have slipped through the cracks as the government chose to focus on wealthier individuals and communities.
Singapore is known for keeping a tight grip on its residents, so if they can’t stamp out the virus, how are the rest of us supposed to beat COVID-19?
These new hotspots are teaching us a lot about the nature of the disease, how it spreads, and how it may be evolving over time. Recent outbreaks also show us the limits of authoritarian control and contact tracing. Beating the virus once doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. Hopefully, the U.S. can learn from these other countries as we begin to reopen.