"Why Has the East Asian COVID Model Diverged over Delta and Omicron?” (Yves Tiberghien seminar)

by Sophie Welsh

[Video recording]

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted many activities worldwide.  Much of the media has covered national responses, from the relative success of various Asian and Oceanian countries to news about the polarized attitudes toward the virus in the United States.  There are many lessons to learn from the factors that led to the diverging responses in each country and the success of various national pandemic responses. In his seminar on January 31, 2022, Professor Yves Tiberghien (University of British Columbia) updated his findings from his recent book, East Asian COVID-19 Paradox (Cambridge University Press, 2021) and presented his findings on the Delta and Omicron variants.
The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the greatest simultaneous lockdown and economic recession since the Spanish Flu. It was made worse by a lack of global coordination,
due to various factors including the U.S.-China rivalry and the U.S. reluctance to engage in global institutions. In this context, the countries across East Asia and Oceania—across diverse political regimes—have generally managed to limit the coronavirus’ epidemiological and economic damage. It is also notable that these countries implemented different policies during the Delta and the Omicron waves. 
Prof. Yves Tiberghien posits that individual countries’ performance can be explained by two factors.  The first is institutional capacity: pre-existing, targeted, centralized governance structures responded effectively to the pandemic.  The second variable is social cohesion.  Among the varieties of East Asian models, Prof. Tiberghien highlighted the Taiwan-Korea-Singapore model, which combined legal tools, rapid mobilization of centralized gov pandemic headquarters, reliance on a scientists and health experts, rapid border response, rapid provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), contact tracing, generalized mask-wearing, and effective communication.
Though  the Japanese approach included widespread mask-wearing and effective communication from the government, it does not fit neatly the Taiwan-Korea-Singapore model. There was no rapid mobilization of centralized pandemic headquarters; it relied less on health scientists than in other countries; and there were no wide-scale contact tracing apps.  Japan’s health care system was the strongest in East Asia, but its pandemic decision making was dominated by the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Factors that mitigated the pandemic’s spread in Japan included Japan’s 3C guidelines—regarding closed spaces, crowded spaces, and close contacts, strong social cohesion and social response to guidelines, and effective protection of senior homes were successful in mitigating the pandemic’s spread.  However, testing was too low, and national policies were not stringent enough, focusing on behavioral change rather than quarantine and lockdown.  The good outcomes during the “classic” wave were due to people’s voluntary responses, but testing was insufficient, and vaccination became widespread far too late in July-September 2021.
During the delta and omicron wave, national responses diverged further.  Japan’s response to the delta variant combined mitigation, modest government intervention, and limited contact tracing. For the omicron variant, national policies were shaped by several variables, including the level of public support for government policies in previous phases, level of lobbying by organized groups, and national vaccination rates.
For the omicron variant, Japan has shown its most robust response under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, more in tune with the public’s preferences and expectations than previous responses.  Measures to tackle the omicron variant were shaped by the level of public support for government policies, level of social cohesion, economic and social hardships, and the increasing vaccination rates. The Kishida administration has committed to increasing hospital beds and testing, which has helped flatten the mortality curve. Its strong policy response to the omicron variant is in part explained by the forthcoming upper house election in summer 2022.
However, polling results indicate that some in the Japanese public has begun to question compliance with authority.  In a survey on satisfaction with government policy among several countries, Japan ranked the lowest, with a higher dissatisfaction than in the US. South Korea was the only other East Asian country where anger and frustration have also risen significantly.
In terms of border closures for the omicron variant, South Korea, Singapore, and Australia have opened partially to mitigate economic costs, while Taiwan, New Zealand, and Hong Kong have continued their closures. China has continued to enforce strict lockdown measures, which have entailed significant economic costs. The national-level and cross-temporal variations in COVID-19 responses also raise further questions about the importance of government credibility, the impact of public perceptions of government, and how China may shift from its current lockdown policy.