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Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong: What we can learn from the countries who have 'flattened the curve'.

‘Flatten the curve’ has become a popular phrase in recent days.

It follows epidemiologists observing two predominant paths that COVID-19 has taken. Firstly, there is the rapid and exponential spread experienced by countries such as China, Italy and Iran.

Then there are the countries such as Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, who have managed to mitigate the transmission of coronavirus by using effective and aggressive methods.

Watch: Mamamia’s Claire Murphy breaks down your most asked questions about COVID-19. Post continues below. 

Video by Mamamia

Now, of course, the majority of countries are trying to implement the ‘flatten the curve’ method to reduce the rate of new cases.

Here’s what that means exactly, and how other countries have successfully implemented it.

What does it mean to ‘flatten the curve’?

As Scott Morrison said on Sunday, it is impossible to completely stop the spread of coronavirus. What we can do, however, is mitigate the community transmission to a manageable level for our health care systems.

By doing so, the government aims to lessen the number of active cases at any given time and thus ensure our healthcare system does not become overwhelmed. This method is proven to best ensure nurses, doctors and hospitals can deal with the significantly increased intake of patients during a pandemic.

To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean less people will ultimately contract the virus. Rather, it simply ensures not everyone will get sick – and require a hospital bed – at the same time. In Australia, for example, we only have 2.6 public hospital beds per 1,000 population. During winter time, that is already stretched, due to the flu.

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What did Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong do?

Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong all reported early cases of the coronavirus, compared to countries in Europe, who were not hit hard until recent weeks and have since been declared the new epicentre of the pandemic due to its exponential spread.

So why has it not swept these countries as severely as it has Europe?

Well, they were prepared. In 2003, they dealt with the SARS crisis. In Hong Kong, for example, over 8,000 people were infected by the respiratory illness and 774 were killed. Subsequently, the government put in practices to prepare for the next health crisis.

Let’s look at Taiwan as an example.

At the time of reporting, Taiwan – one of China’s closest neighbours – has 59 coronavirus cases out of a population of 23 million. Comparatively, one month ago, Italy had three cases of coronavirus and they now have nearly 25,000.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, Taiwan – 81 miles from the mainland of China – was expected to suffer one of the highest number of cases of COVID-19 due to its proximity to China, and the significant number of flights between the two countries every day.

coronavirus update
Nurses work in the aisle in a hospital designated for COVID-19 patients in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. Image: Getty.

But following the SARS crisis, Taiwan introduced the National Health Command Centre in 2004 to deal with epidemics and pandemics exactly like this.

In late December and early January, immediately upon hearing of an outbreak of a pneumonia-like illness in Wuhan (where coronavirus originated), Taiwan was one of the first countries to introduce inspection measures for all flights arriving from Wuhan. They assessed passengers for symptoms, and ensured any person with any signs was placed in quarantine.

Ultimately, they implemented a list of 124 action items, from school policies, to proactively seeking out cases, to public education.

Health authorities ensured people who had recently experienced respiratory symptoms but had tested negative for influenza were retested for COVID-19.

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From the start, their response to the crisis has been characterised as aggressive. It has worked, just as it has for Singapore and Hong Kong on a similar scale.

Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said Singapore is "leaving no stone unturned" in their approach, which included putting government advertisements in newspapers encouraging readers with any symptoms at all to be tested.

Hong Kong has had their schools closed since February, and intend to keep them closed until at least April 24.

Even Japan has been praised for 'flattening the curve', after the Diamond Princess cruise ship was moored in their seas and posed a significant and potentially dire threat to their population.

Considering 25 per cent of Japan's population is aged over 65 (the age group most vulnerable to dying from coronavirus ), it was of great concern for Japan when the illness first arrived.

But as Mike Ryan, the WHO's head of emergencies, said: "There's clearly an indication that a systematic government-led approach using all tactics and all elements available seems to be able to turn this disease around".

To be clear, none of these countries have overcome the illness. Every day they report new cases of coronavirus. But the preventative measures put in place by their governments and effectively and efficiently employed by their populations has irrefutably slowed the rate at which the virus has spread, thus ensuring their healthcare system has coped.

In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he too intends to 'flatten the curve'. Although the federal government is yet to close schools, they have put a ban on non-essential gatherings of over 500 people and encouraged all citizens to practice social distancing.

At the moment in Australia, we have 300 confirmed cases of coronavirus and five deaths. The next days and weeks will be crucial in whether we as a nation will be able to 'flatten the curve' or not.

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