In the United States, “living with COVID” has become synonymous with becoming more self-reliant or returning to pre-pandemic normalcy. The US is a leader in developing effective vaccines, therapeutics and high-quality masks. Still, almost two-thirds of Americans haven’t gotten their first booster shots, and an average of between 300 and 400 people die from the virus every day. With the abolition of the mask requirement, compensatory ideas for cleaning indoor air and improving ventilation to limit the spread of the virus are still being implemented inconsistently by institutions and companies.
Developed and developing Asia-Pacific countries that no longer subscribe to zero-COVID policies are believed to have largely moved away from the virus, as has the United States and Western Europe. Or they are thought to have policies like China, where frequent lockdowns, significant quarantines, mass testing and heightened technological surveillance largely remain in place. In reality, these “Third Way” countries — New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Australia — have learned to live with COVID-19, but not just by returning to the many things their citizens enjoyed before the pandemic to have . They are also relying on common sense practices they benefited from earlier in the pandemic to protect the vulnerable from the virus’s most severe effects.
Just like the United States and Western Europe, Third Way countries have lifted or scaled back many pandemic restrictions, particularly international travel restrictions. Australia has lifted all COVID-19 restrictions on international travel. Singapore and New Zealand are also open to visitors, with some restrictions for unvaccinated travelers. Like the United States, Singapore and Taiwan no longer require pre-departure COVID-19 testing for inbound passengers. South Korea is also mostly open while maintaining the requirement for pre-departure COVID-19 testing for all inbound passengers. Japan and Taiwan are more conservative in opening their borders, although the former has opened its borders to group travelers. Taiwan has lifted pre-test requirements and reduced the number of quarantine days for inbound travelers.
All Third Way countries have waived lockdowns for months, and many have scaled back contact tracing and quarantine measures for those exposed to the virus.
The easing of restrictions and the more infectious omicron subvariants have led to a significant spread of the virus in recent months, particularly to populations in Asia Pacific who have not previously been exposed to the virus. Still, all-cause mortality rates from COVID-19 remain far lower in these third-way countries. According to the Johns Hopkins University Mortality Analysis Tracker, Third Way countries have comparatively far lower deaths per 100,000 population: Australia (49.56), Japan (27.18), New Zealand (35.81), Singapore (26.37), South Korea (49.62) and Taiwan (39.04) compared to the United States (314.31), the United Kingdom (275.16) and France (235.94).
More critically, high vaccination and booster rates have likely reduced the severe impact of COVID-19 in Third Way countries. All Third Way countries bought time earlier in the pandemic by largely containing the virus, meaning a significant number of their populations had received at least one shot as they changed their strategy for living with the virus. Additionally, they continue to emphasize high vaccination and booster rates as crucial to their strategy for living with the virus.
More than three-quarters of Singaporeans, Taiwanese, Japanese and South Koreans have received a booster shot, according to the New York Times vaccination tracker. More than half of Australians and nearly 65 percent of New Zealanders have also received a booster shot. In contrast, just over a third of Americans have had their booster shots. Singapore’s meticulous records also show that residents who are not fully vaccinated are almost 10 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their counterparts who have received three or more vaccinations.
Third Way countries are requiring precautionary face coverings in many indoor settings, which may have helped reduce the number of vulnerable members of society who have contracted the virus. Even Singapore, which has lifted almost all COVID-19 measures, still requires masks to be worn in virtually all indoor spaces, as do Taiwan and South Korea. New Zealand requires masks to be worn indoors in most educational and healthcare facilities, as well as on public transport. Most Australian states require masks to be worn by people over the age of 12 in most healthcare facilities and public transport. Most Japanese people practice masking indoors, although they are no longer required in most situations.
Australia and New Zealand have also promoted indoor air purification measures that help reduce the amount of virus indoors. Some Australian states have distributed tens of thousands of air purifiers to schools while emphasizing the importance of improved ventilation in schools. New Zealand had already distributed hundreds of air purifiers to schools by April 2022, with a goal of air purifiers in all 2,500 state and state-integrated schools. A Tasmanian school in Australia has reportedly found no further transmission of the virus by not only requiring coverings but also thoroughly cleaning the indoor air with Corsi-Rosenthal boxes in all classrooms and toilets.
Politicians in the United States and China might find the experiences of Third Way countries alike helpful in calibrating their approach to the virus. To be clear, both countries have been dealing with many of these measures during the pandemic. For example, the latest US CDC guidelines encourage communities to take steps to increase ventilation and improve filtration in public places. Policymakers in the United States should consider encouraging more immunization and empowerment, devoting federal and state resources to improving indoor air quality, and maintaining indoor mask requirements as a viable policy option.
For China, managing border controls more flexibly and minimizing lockdowns while rolling out more effective vaccines and focusing on cleaning indoor air can help the country live more sustainably with the virus. As the Third Way countries show us, careful handling of the virus and its multiple effects on society is crucial for dealing with it in a responsible and sustainable manner.