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Coronavirus

Virus testing gap proves critical in Southeast Asia and India

Vietnam's success credited to early action, as cases rise in laggard Indonesia

Hanoi residents wait for coronavirus testing at a makeshift rapid testing center in late March.   © Reuters

TOKYO/HANOI -- A speedy rollout of mass testing for the coronavirus appears to be a crucial yardstick in determining the human and economic toll inflicted on various Asian countries by the pandemic.

Vietnam, which reacted quickly, has reported just 288 cases so far, with no deaths. But fatalities have topped 2,000 in India and 1,000 in Indonesia, where testing rates are climbing more slowly.

The availability of testing also influences when these countries can reopen their economies.

Vietnam is among the most aggressive countries in Asia for testing, performing 2,681 per 1 million people, according to data as of Sunday from trackers including the University of Oxford. Indonesia, by contrast, has tested a mere 415 people per million.

Singapore has tested 21,114 per million in the city-state, with daily new cases among the broader community falling to the single digits.

But the country's confirmed case count has climbed to 23,336 as of Monday, World Health Organization data shows, as infections spread among migrant workers from India and elsewhere living in close quarters. Singapore announced an "aggressive testing regime" Tuesday targeting these 300,000 workers.

Vietnam responded swiftly to the virus, containing it with expanded testing and a thorough quarantine program. Hanoi moved in February to close schools and restrict entry by foreign travelers. The country with a population of nearly 100 million is capable of performing 14,000 tests a day and has carried out close to 300,000 thus far.

The Southeast Asian country also went further than the WHO's quarantine standards, building a system for tracing not only people diagnosed with COVID-19 but also individuals who were in close contact with an infected person -- and even the contacts of those individuals.

Hanoi also urged those with the disease and their close contacts to self-isolate for 14 days.

A mobile testing center in New Delhi: Only a little over 2,000 tests are being administered per day in the capital.   © Reuters

India's death toll reached 2,206 on Monday even with the nationwide lockdown covering 1.3 billion people.

The country raised daily testing capacity to 55,000 at the end of April, but only a little over 2,000 tests are being administered per day in New Delhi, the capital. India's testing infrastructure still allows asymptomatic carriers to go about their daily lives and transmit the virus.

Indonesia's response has been slow as well, conducting a little over 160,000 tests in total on its 270 million people. The government seeks to lift daily capacity to 10,000 tests by month's end. The country has lost 1,007 lives as of Tuesday, with new cases rising from Monday to reach 14,749.

Vietnam began lifting its lockdown and eased retail restrictions April 23, and Singapore hopes to restart the economy around June 1. But much business activity remains at a standstill in India and Indonesia.

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