The Trump administration has cited success stories in South Korea and Austria as it calls for Americans to return to work -- but those countries moved faster than the US to combat the pandemic and have been more cautious in reopening their economies.
And a third country US officials once regarded as a model, Singapore, is now struggling with a resurgence of the outbreak.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett have said in the past two weeks that the Trump administration is monitoring those three nations as it plans for the US to reopen.
But they offer flawed comparisons at best, given the much larger size of the US and its outbreak, as well as measures taken to curb the virus.
Austria acted faster than the US to clamp down on business and social life, while South Korea much more rapidly built a robust testing regime.
Yet they are both now just edging toward easing restrictions, even with infection rates far lower than the US, and South Korea has seen a new flare-up in nightclubs. Singapore, meanwhile, has seen a second wave that has forced a pivot to mass testing.
Public health experts have warned that reopening the US too quickly risks sparking a fresh wave of the outbreak, possibly leading to another, even more damaging shutdown. Trump, though, made his most forceful case over the past week, saying that easing restrictions would cost lives, but it’s a price “warrior” American citizens must tolerate to get the economy back on track.
The Labor Department announced Friday that an unprecedented 20 million jobs were lost in April as Americans sheltered themselves from the pandemic.
States across the US South and Midwest including Georgia and Texas are beginning to reopen even as the number of infected continues to climb.
“We’ve been able to contain the spread of the coronavirus in Texas,” the state’s governor, Republican Greg Abbott, said at the White House on Thursday. His state has more than twice as many cases as Austria and three times its population. “But at the same time, we created these surge forces that will go out to regions where there are flare-ups, and it’s like putting out a fire.”
The US has endured the largest publicly reported outbreak in the world, with more than 1.3 million infections and at least 78,000 deaths. Cases and deaths are still mounting, even as Trump spurs governors to reopen. Trump is tested daily, while Vice President Michael Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller, is now among the confirmed cases -- a development that sent top US health officials into self-quarantine.
The US president has said he believes the country is now prepared to both return Americans to work and quickly respond when the virus flares up again.
“I think you can really have it both ways,” Trump said April 26 during a Fox News town hall event, before spending the week regularly spurring along a reopening. “We have to get our country back. Yeah, I don’t want to do this forever.”
Testing for the virus has been crucial in every country that’s managed to contain it. While the US has now conducted more than 8.4 million tests, well beyond the total in any other country, it was slow to ramp up and didn’t surpass 100,000 tests performed until March 19, according to data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project.
The US has now conducted roughly 26,500 tests per million people, compared to about 35,000 per million for Austria and 30,800 per million for Singapore. South Korea had performed about 18,400 tests per million as of April 19, its most recent data by that measure.
South Korea, which identified its first case on Jan. 20, the same day as the US, contained its outbreak to about 10,800 cases and just 256 deaths. Even so, it’s waited until this month to begin easing social-distancing restrictions -- after bringing its infection rate to near zero. The nightclub outbreak has raised fears of a new wave.
The Asian country began widespread testing far earlier than the US In early March, South Korea had the highest case total outside of China. By mid-March, more than 200,000 people had been tested in a country of about 52 million.
It reported 34 new confirmed cases Saturday, compared to more than 25,000 in the US And yet the government is only moving to reopen schools and other public facilities like theaters and sports games this month, and doing so gradually and cautiously.
“I hope people don’t read it wrong and think this policy change means the risk has disappeared or they can go back to their daily life without worrying,” said South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun.
Austria and Singapore
Hassett said on April 28 that he’s following Austria closely: “We’ve been making a chart of Austria every day to sort of see, are there signs that when people open up, that things are inflecting in a way that would give the doctors concern.”
Austria was one of the first countries to close down its economy as the virus began to spread. When its government announced the first social-distancing measures in March, only about 200 people in the entire country of about 9 million had tested positive for infection, and no one had yet died.
The country began easing its lock-down measures on April 14, after case growth had fallen to less than 200 per day, and has only slowly relaxed -- allowing, for instance, individuals to leave their homes without a specific purpose. Larger stores reopened this month, along with services including hairdressers. Hotels, restaurants and schools remain closed.
The Austrian capital of Vienna has also instigated new rules, such as mandatory face masks in public places. And Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has said he won’t hesitate to reverse course if the numbers spike again. Austria has about 15,800 confirmed cases and 618 deaths; the country reported 14 new cases on Sunday.
Pompeo said the US government has been watching Singapore’s handling of the outbreak, as well as South Korea. He noted in an April 29 interview on Fox News that Singapore has “had a resurgence in cases.”
The country has gone from success story to warning sign. Singapore has had about 22,500 cases, but just 20 deaths. While the city-state reported 876 new cases on Sunday, its outbreak is nearly entirely concentrated among migrant workers living in dormitories, who make up nearly 90% of all cases.
Now facing the largest publicly reported outbreak in Southeast Asia, Singapore’s less socially restrictive strategy has been replaced by a partial lockdown that’s being tightened and extended until June 1.