As Greece battles to control the pandemic, recording 9,788 deaths as of yesterday, as pressure grows for a loosening of the measures against the coronavirus, it is worth remembering how necessary those measures are. Taiwan, with a population of 23.5 million, has recorded just 11 deaths since the start of the pandemic. Even though it did not impose a lockdown, nor did it close schools, it implemented strict checks, tracing and quarantine of close contacts of people found to have Covid-19, and ordered the wearing of masks and social distancing in the general population. Similar measures were implemented in many other countries, mostly with less success.
Because Taiwan is an island and was quick to stop the entry of travelers, it is perhaps not the best example on ways to deal with the pandemic. But because it suffered 180 deaths during the SARS outbreak in 2003, it is clear that its policy was more effective this time. Like Greece in the first wave, Taiwan was lucky not to have many cases of Covid-19 at the start and was able to control its spread. Unlike many other countries, including Greece, it managed to avoid further contagion. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that Taiwan’s use of “case-based interventions” (contact tracing, quarantines etc) was able to bring the reproduction number down from 2.5 to 1.53, whereas “population-based interventions” (masks etc), limited it to 1.3. It was only a combination of the two, “with wide adherence,” that brought the reproduction number below 1, thus stopping contagion.
Today, the spread of the British variant in Greece is complicating things. It is 70 percent more contagious than the original virus. This means that with a reproduction number (Rt or R0) of 1, then 10 people could transmit the original virus to another 10, whereas the British variant would spread to 17, and so on. A greater effort is needed to curb the virus just as the measures aimed at this are being relaxed. The rising number of vaccinated people is not yet sufficient to stop the virus.
“Mitigating the Covid-19 pandemic requires the collaborative effort of public health professionals and the general public,” is the simple yet profound conclusion of the JAMA study. In coming days, we Greeks will be tested on this.