Covid: Low numbers of deaths in Japan and North Korea show how an effective test-and-trace system saves lives – Dr Gwenetta Curry

Track-and-trace systems have been deployed in many countries as a measure to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

Japan has had 1,520 deaths from Covid out of a population of 127 million. Picture: Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images
Japan has had 1,520 deaths from Covid out of a population of 127 million. Picture: Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images

Currently the UK has reached 3.16 million Covid-19 cases and 83,203 deaths across the country, and the new variants of the virus have presented more challenges for the nation.

The UK looks on at countries in Asia and parts of Europe who are slowly returning to some level of normalcy while we enter our third series of lockdowns. Analyzing the ways other countries have been successful in their responses and recognising our failures will be important for the fight against the surge of Covid-19 infections.

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Japan has had 1,520 deaths in a population of 127 million and South Korea has experienced 393 deaths in a population of 52 million. Both of these countries avoided that lockdown saga we have experienced by simply creating an effective track-and-trace system.

The Japanese and Korean contract tracers focused on identifying clusters and various superspreading events. This approach allowed for the immediate isolation of the infected group to prevent the spread to the broader society.

The New York State system allows for the contact tracers to support people with resources to maintain quarantine, such as groceries, household supplies, childcare, medical care or supplies.

Their "Take Care” system allows for those who test positive for Covid-19 and their close contacts to isolate separately in a hotel for up to 10 days, free of charge or at home to prevent the spread. These systems have had a major impact on the reducing the spread of the virus in New York because people did not have to risk their lives and the lives of others to self-isolate.

This is a major contrast to the efforts in the UK where many struggle with the decision to isolate or continue to go to work. The ability to self-isolate after exposure to the virus is directly connected to the type of occupation that one has and its stability.

If you lack access to paid time off, then you are more likely to risk continuing to go to work rather than isolating for the required number of days. According to Unison’s Black workers and Covid-19 report, access to sick pay has emerged as a key component of infection control. Black workers are less likely to receive full pay and more likely to rely on statutory sick pay. These inequalities must be addressed to increase the safety of all members of society.

Culturally competent communication is a key component in maintaining control of the virus.

Currently health guidance is given only in English which limits the access of information to non-native English speakers. Training contact tracers to serve diverse communities is another area that has been overlooked in the UK track-and-trace process.

Contact tracers told Sky News they are missing opportunities to contact migrant workers who test positive due to the lack of translators. With migrant workers making up a good proportion of front-facing workers there need to be more efforts in place to protect their health.

Dr Gwenetta Curry is an Edinburgh University lecturer on race, ethnicity and health

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