The Western world should urgently play the "Asian smart" route to control COVID-19

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  • J. Bughin

Dr Jacques Bughin, UN consultant, Solvay Business School ULB, Portulans Institute and G20Y, former Director McKinsey Global Institute, and senior partner McKinsey & Company.

Table of Contents:

  1. March 22

1. March 22

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The COVID-19 spread continues, passing the recorded number of 330,000 contaminations worldwide, and about 15,000 deaths. We are twice the SARS outbreak of 2003, and just hitting the level of the 1976 Ebola outbreak. If the most hit countries suffering just below 1 to 1,000 in the case of Italy (0.9 per 1,000), Switzerland (0.8 per 1,000) and the Hubei region (0.8 per 1,000), the current figures are still in their phase of explosion. Traditional flu Asian countries, which have a longer experience of pandemics may teach Europe a few proven management lessons in order to curb the outbreak.

As in case in point, Asia, from where the COVID-19 originated (like 7 out of 10 pandemics since a few centuries, it seems) has close to three times more recovered cases than Europe at large. Its growth multiplier of new cases has declined largely along the way, and is close to three times lower than Europe, (with multiplier <1, in effect, a stabilisation of the pandemic, in China, South Korea and Japan; see Figure 1)

Figure 1: Slower dynamics of new cases in Asia

That Asia has been able to curb its new case multiplier is only one feature of that continent — today, Asia has both lower than average build up of new cases as well as lower contamination of its population as one can witness from countries such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, on top of China. Countries close to Asian performance include Israel, and perhaps, the UAE (see figure 2).

Figure 2: How Asian countries are better controlling the Covid spread

In fact, four elements make Asia a benchmark on how to manage and curb pandemics:

  • Asian countries share the characteristics that they have faced most of, and thus learned from, early pandemics; the UAE got to face MERS, too. Those countries have learned that they need to build a quick plan and be agile in its execution. Regarding the plan, it includes getting the provisioning and supply chains right, e.g. they got enough supply of protections (masks, etc.) planned; they managed their borders very carefully so as to limit imported cases (Taiwan, Singapore, Hong-Kong). Regarding agility, when uncertainty hit, they did not got overwhelmed, but quickly reallocated and built extra resources when needed. China for example reallocated health care professionals to the Hubei region, so as to double the local capacity of health resources from 14,000 to 30,000, while they also quickly built up extra bed and respirator capacities in a record of a few days to face the peak.

  • Those countries got quickly into mobilizing their citizens to wear masks and into limiting their interactions drastically, and relatively early in the development of the epidemic. Again, more than 80% of Asians were wearing masks during the outbreak, an order of magnitude of what is seen in the Western world, simply because Europe (and likely US) did not anticipate and currently lacks supply of those protective items.

  • Asian countries added enough tests to spot contaminated people. In fact, the champion seems to be the UAE, as well as countries such as South Korea or Singapore (see figure 3).

Figure 3: Who is champion in testing

Regression analysis we conducted suggests that 1,000 extra tests might spot 30 new cases, or a 3% hit rate, a significant upside versus currently 0.2 recorded person out of 1,000. In pandemics, any, even minimal way of spotting contamination is key to flatten the exponential curve. Hence, even at low level testing of its population, Asia has been able to spot twice more infections than Europe today, de facto, controlling a major source of pandemics, with Figure 4 clearly showing that more tests typically push down the growth of new cases.

Figure 4: Effective testing limits the uncontrolled push of new COVID-19 cases

The irony is that, without testing, the number of recorded cases might become optimistically conservative in Europe and outside Asia; using the same number of tests per million inhabitants than what South Korea and Singapore recently performed, would imply that the world is closer to 800,000 contaminations to date, if all those new tests would spot new infected individuals.

  • Last but not least, Asia added a clearcut set of pervasive AI technology set to trace and isolate risky citizens. The technology includes extra artificial intelligence tools to assess the likelihood of being sick, so as to limit people moves, including their close ties in their social networks. Among others, Alibaba trained an AI-based algorithm from a sample of 5,000 cases of contaminated people to predict the contamination, at a precision rate of 96%, which then was used to color the QR code of multiple interaction applications that restrict most probable contagious people to perform socially risky tasks such as travelling, etc. Baidu used video recognition tools and scanners in metro stations to spot people with rising temperature, etc. While in Western Europe, we might question the privacy and the ethics of those tools, they are possibly more effective, and surely much less costly, than imposing a full shutdown of our economies. Adding this technology layer has proven to limit the time needed of the quarantine that is being imposed.

The Western world should definitely take notice, as much as Asia should take the lead to adapt those practices quickly on a global world basis. In parallel, we hope that antiviral testing will bear fruit very quickly, and governments will organize a major boost plan to relaunch our world after we have managed to control the pandemic.

© Jacques Bughin. Written March 22. Comments more than welcome. All errors are mine.

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