Is the Asia Pacific region about to resume something approaching normal life? Today is Labour Day in much of Asia, a public holiday in both China and India, but the hope is that work and normal life can soon resume.
Hong Kong reported zero local cases for five straight days through May 1. Coincidentally, today marks exactly 100 days since the first recorded case in the city, on January 22.
In an example of successful containment, South Korea on April 29 reported its first day of zero local cases since the disease peaked. There's still a smattering of imported cases in Korea and Hong Kong. But such an outcome seemed impossible as South Korea became the first nation outside China to see large-scale infection.
New Zealand believes it has the coronavirus contained, seeing single-digit new-case days for almost two weeks. Australia is easing restrictions. But it's worth noting this is the developed nations of the Asia Pacific region.
The coronavirus has, in its initial wave, been a "rich person's disease." It affected international travelers, and the company that they keep. It remains to be seen how the pandemic will affect states where the infrastructure for technology and health care are lacking.
As the pandemic progresses, it has spread to less-wealthy populations. India has emerged as the Asian nation with the most Covid-19 cases outside China. It had 34,863 cases as of the end of April, having entered the month with only 1,397. Since many observers suggest the lack of widespread testing is masking the scope of India's outbreak, it may be about to experience its own exponential rise.
Singapore saw its infections soar in April, from 1,000 at the start of the month to 17,101 as of May 1. Of those cases, 80.9% stem from the dormitories in which its massed ranks of migrant workers must live, the bulk of those 323,000 laborers coming from South Asian nations. The latest figures show 4.3% of the migrant workforce have tested positive for Covid-19.
Here in Hong Kong, the much-maligned government has announced that civil servants would return to the office on Monday, government departments will reopen, and outdoor sports facilities can resume if they're not for team sports. There's still a ban on gatherings of more than four non-family members.
That's being tested by pro-democracy demonstrations, which are resuming. Police, in dispersing them, are citing that people are there for a "common purpose" even if they stand in groups of four that are 1.5 meters apart, as required. But the social distancing measures don't mention any such "purpose" wording, which is in other laws that have nothing to do with distancing. The virus honestly doesn't care what your purpose is for gathering.
Be that as it may, protests show Hong Kong is getting back to normal! We feel our aggressive voluntary distancing and health measures kept the case count so low, at 1,039, with four deaths right at the beginning of the outbreak. Of course, it will be a new normal for us all.
Korea shot through 8,000 cases by March 13. But it managed to prevent an exponential explosion of the disease. By the start of May, it had recorded 10,774 total infections. Even more remarkable has been its death rate, with only 248 confirmed Covid-19 fatalities, or 2.3% of patients.
Korea is by the most-wired nation on earth. It has a broadband penetration rate to 81.7% of households. Japan, second with 79.0% of households wired, has a mobile-broadband subscription rate that leads the world, at 177%, meaning people on average have more than one smartphone account.
Cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore also have high rates of digital penetration. This has doubtless helped share information about the virus, with apps tracking infection locations, and people able to refer to where the virus has spread. Those kinds of technologies will be harder, but not impossible, to deploy in developing nations, surely relying on mobile phones.
The markets that were in action on Friday didn't share the sense of optimism reflected in infection numbers. Energy and financial stocks dragged the S&P/ASX 200 in Australia down 5.0%, after it had risen 21.5% since its March 23 low. Tokyo's broad Topix index fell 2.2%, with losses on Wall Street following through. But the Tokyo market has traded in a steady range since the first week of April, having risen 15.8% from its lows.
India, the world's fifth-largest economy according to the IMF, will be well worth watching. Its major automakers all on Friday reported zero sales for April, due to the national lockdown. They included Maruti Suzuki (MRZUY), Mahindra & Mahindra (MHID) and the Indian unit of Hyundai Motor (HYMTF), all reported zero sales for April due to India's lockdown.
India on Friday said it would extend its lockdown by two weeks, to May 17. But while travel remains virtually impossible, the movement of goods is now excluded. There's a substantial freeing up of economic activity in lower-infection zones of the country. But all its major cities are considered high-risk "red" zones with tough enforcement.
Individual cities and even nations are starting to emerge from lockdown. How on earth, though, are we going to piece them all together?