Shige Matsui (Professor of Law, UBC Peter A. Allard School of Law)
Jie Cheng (Professor of Law, UBC Peter A. Allard School of Law)
John C.H. Kim (Adjunct Professor, UBC Peter A. Allard school of Law, Chief Strategy Officer & General Counsel, Movmint.io)
COVID-19 was first reported in December 2019 in China and the WHO confirmed the COVID-19 virus on January 13, 2020. Gradually, it spread across the world and the WHO declared a “pandemic” on January 29, 2020. As of March 12, the total global number of infected patients reached 356M and the death toll reached 6M. However, if we look closer, the number of infected patients as well as the death toll are significantly different depending on the country: some countries are doing better than others in responding to COVID-19. Asian countries, including China, Japan, and South Korea, are doing relatively better. However, each of these three countries adopted contrasting strategies to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Building upon our roundtable discussion on COVID-19 last spring, we discussed such strategies in this follow-up roundtable discussion on the aftermath of COVID-19.
First, Professor Cheng explained the strategy of the Chinese government: it adopted a zero-COVID-19 policy and introduced strict forced quarantine and lockdown measures. However, the lockdown was narrowly limited; there has not been a nation-wide lockdown. On the other hand, the Chinese government has also focused on economic recovery. These strategies, which are highly authoritarian but basically paternalistic, can prove to be successful, but there are still many challenges going forward.
Next, Professor Matsui discussed Japan’s unique approach: it has not followed a wide-spread COVID-19 testing policy, and instead focused on maintenance of medical care capacity and keeping the death toll to a minimum. It is a noteworthy characteristic of Japanese law that the government is not granted strong powers to order lockdown, or even mandatory vaccination. As a result, when the government declared a state of medical emergency and introduced lockdown, it was merely advisory and not mandatory. Nevertheless, most Japanese people followed the government’s advice and, as a result, the death toll in Japan is relatively small. But the pandemic left many important lessons to be considered for the future emergency law and disaster law system.
Finally, Adjunct Professor Kim analyzed South Korea. Korea adopted the wide availability of COVID-19 testing and rigid contact tracing as major methods to contain the infection. For a while, these strategies worked to keep the number of patients to a minimum. However, due to more recent surges of the highly contagious Omicron variant, the number of infected patients sky-rocketed and many came to cast doubts on the efficacy of these measures. Various countermeasures were introduced as a result.
The relative successes of these three Asian countries provide important lessons for many Western countries despite their individual strategies.