Queensland players celebrate winning the 2020 State of Origin series during Game 3 of the 2020 State of Origin series between the New South Wales Blues and the Queensland Maroons at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Australia, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. (Darren England/AAP Image via AP)

Anything resembling "normal" may seem unfathomable as the number of COVID-19 cases worldwide dash past 80 million and Canada grapples with a second wave that far surpasses what it experienced in the spring.

It is a term that feels wildly out of place in 2020, but in some parts of the world where the virus has been all but eradicated, like Taiwan and Australia, life is about as close to "normal" as one can imagine during a global pandemic.

CTVNews.ca spoke with half a dozen people experiencing a far different pandemic life and took a snapshot -- by no means an exhaustive look -- of what is happening in other parts of the world.

In some of these places, the willingness of local residents to follow protective measures has meant enviably less draconian restrictions and longer stretches of relative normalcy, and importantly, dramatically fewer cases and deaths. In others, “normal” was the result of extremely strict lockdown measures that virtually eliminated the virus. In several regions, they are also among the most densely populated in the world.

Wuhan, China, once the epicenter of the pandemic, is now the scene of a vibrant nightlife, packed nightclubs, and crowd-surfing fans at concerts, Reuters News recently documented. During China’s National Day “Golden Week” in October, 647 million people packed trains, cars and airplanes to travel throughout China, according to government estimates.

Vietnam has almost consistently recorded fewer than 20 daily new cases since mid-August and has had fewer than 1,500 confirmed cases and 35 deaths in total as of Dec. 31. The country’s success with containing the virus has allowed its economy to rebound faster, growing 2.69 per cent in the third quarter compared to a year earlier and 4.48 per cent in the fourth, according to government figures.

These examples and others stand in stark contrast to life in Canada, which has now reported more than 15,000 deaths related to the coronavirus, or the United States, which accounts for roughly a quarter the infections reported worldwide and which for a number of days in December was reporting a daily death toll that exceeded the total number of people who died on Sept. 11. In all, more than 340,000 people have died in the United States from the virus.

To be sure, some Canadians and Americans are also going about daily life normally too, but they do so amid uncontrolled spreadhospital ICUs fully occupied by COVID-19 patients, and record numbers of deaths. And even among places where infections remain relatively low, like Thailand and Singapore, it takes very little for circumstances to change.

TAIWAN

When Clarissa Wei landed in Taiwan after living in regions hit by COVID-19 and political unrest, the feeling of normalcy felt foreign.

“It’s so surreal being in Taiwan … where everything is ….. Normal??? I forgot what normal felt like,” she tweeted in October.

The small island, located a mere 300 km or so away from Xiamen, China, is about 36,000 square kilometres, but home to some 23.5 million people. In total, Taiwan has reported just 797 COVID-19 infections and a mere seven deaths as of Dec. 31.

While many large events and parades were cancelled around the world, this year’s LGBTQ pride parade in Taipei drew a crowd of about 130,000 people at the end of October.

A year ago, on Dec. 31, 2019, Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control began implementing screening measures for inbound flights from Wuhan the same day the World Health Organization (WHO) was alerted to mysterious cases of a “viral pneumonia.” The government’s strict border controls allowed residents to go about life COVID-free for more than eight months of the last 12 months. 

"The CDC acted quickly, they were fast on contact tracing, and widespread mask use was adopted from the onset of the pandemic," Wei, an American freelance journalist based in Taiwan, said in an email to CTVNews.ca.

"Taiwan is one of the few places in the world where COVID isn't circulating around locally. We live a pretty normal life, the only exception is that face masks are mandatory in public spaces. But that's a small preventative precaution that most people are happy to take because we get to live our lives normally."

Taiwan’s virus-free streak was broken just before Christmas when a local contact of a New Zealand pilot for Taiwan's EVA Air tested positive for COVID-19, putting an end to the island’s 253-day record without a case of local transmission.

The pilot was fired and also fined TWD$300,000 ($13,687 CAD) for not “truthfully” reporting his contacts after learning he was infected. According to EVA Air, the pilot also did not wear a mask while on duty, despite being reminded to do so by his colleague. That pilot, from Taiwan, eventually tested positive, as did another pilot from Japan.

According to OurWorldInData.org, Taiwan only saw a 0.6 per cent economic decline in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same period a year earlier. By comparison, the U.S. saw a 9.5 per cent decline, Canada saw a 13.5 per cent decline, and the UK saw a 21.7 per cent decline during the same quarter.

AUSTRALIA

In Brisbane, Australia, Mark, Janet and their two high school children feel very lucky and very grateful for the way the pandemic was handled in their country.

"My life actually really returned to pretty much my old normal -- you know, with a bit of extra care in terms of hand washing and being cautious about some of the places I go to, but pretty much I do everything that I used to do," Janet, who asked not to use their last name for privacy reasons, told CTVNews.ca by phone. 

"The things that make me know that the rest of the world is suffering is that I have family abroad …  right now, it feels quite difficult, particularly talking to my sister overseas, because she’s in very strict lockdown, she has no life normality and I just feel so terrible for her."

Early isolation, quick border controls between states and for international travel, along with mandatory quarantine in a designated hotel, were some key measures that made a difference in Janet’s view.

Those factors, along with stringent government lockdown measures, the benefit of not sharing a land border with other countries, and witnessing other countries hit hard first, likely helped Australia fare significantly better than most of its Western counterparts. The country has a population of about 25 million and reported its first case around the same time as Canada, but has 28,300 confirmed cases and just over 1,000 deaths.

But getting to a place of normality was not easy for many Australians, Janet said. 

Strict local lockdown measures in specific areas of Melbourne over the summer, for example, allowed residents only four reasons to leave their homes: medical care, work or school, exercise or shopping for essentials. Public gatherings were limited to just two people. Interstate borders were closed. By late July, face coverings were mandatory outside the house in places like Melbourne. More sweeping restrictions were imposed by early August when a state of disaster was declared across Victoria after new daily infections hit 671.

In the case of nine Melbourne public housing estates that saw an outbreak, residents went into a sudden and immediate “hard lockdown” in early July that prohibited its 3,000 inhabitants from leaving home for any reason for at least five days. It was a controversial move that was condemned as a violation of human rights in an investigative report released in mid-December that also raised the question of equity and discrimination -- issues that have also come up in many other parts of the world wrestling with the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the vulnerable and marginalized.

As of December 31, the number of new cases in the country have stayed below 50 since early September. The state of Victoria, once the country’s COVID-19 hotspot, marked 61 days in a row without a new community transmission, before it was broken just before New Year’s Eve

While distancing is still encouraged, Janet said, larger gatherings, including at home, are allowed. “Pretty much the whole country’s in a really great place right now,” she said.

In November, 49,155 fans gathered at Suncorp Stadium to watch a rugby game finale between Queensland and New South Wales. The crowd surpassed the 46,000-plus that gathered a month earlier in Auckland, New Zealand, where daily life is also fairly normal and the total number of confirmed cases is just over 2,150 in a country with fewer than 5 million people; only 25 people have died.

Australia’s successful management of the pandemic helped its economy grow by a better-than-expected 3.3 per cent in the third quarter, while economic projections for 2020 by the OECD put Australia in a less dire position than other countries.

Still, fortunes can quickly turn, with Sydney and the rest of New South Wales on alert in late December over new outbreaks and cases of a fast-spreading new coronavirus variant from the UK have also been detected in the country’s most populous state.

HONG KONG

Despite being in the midst of a fourth wave, Hong Kong residents like Thomas Lam say their day to day lives have not been dramatically impacted. He puts on his mask before he leaves home and still dines out about once per day -- considered “typical in Hong Kong”, he said -- and describes many of the restrictions and curfew measures as “inconvenient,” but nothing significantly disruptive.

While some companies have instituted various levels of “work from home” measures, between 80 and 90 per cent of the people at Lam’s company still work at the office.

Hong Kong, a metropolitan that covers just over 1,100 square kilometres, is an international business and tourist hub, with many local residents used to a bustling and active social life before the pandemic.

“One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard, that sort of reflects that we’re actually doing well, is that most people are complaining about how they can not travel,” Luna Chan, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, said by phone. “There’s just less fun to have.”

To date, Hong Kong has reported fewer than 8,800 infections total and 147 deaths among its roughly 7.5 million residents. The latest wave, which triggered certain business closures and restrictions including no restaurant dining after 6 p.m, was caused by a rise in new infections that peaked at 115 cases in a single day in late November.

There really isn’t a sense of isolation though, Chan said. When the case numbers go up, she might not visit her parents for a couple of weeks, which is not necessarily that different from the pre-COVID-19 days, she said.

While major gatherings involving big banquets and weddings, for example, are not happening, there is no “lockdown” -- people still go out, locals still shop “for fun,” and popular parts of Hong Kong like Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui can still get crowded, three longtime Hong Kong residents told CTVNews.ca. Social gatherings with friends and family still occur as well, but with significantly less frequency. 

“I’ve just been to a birthday party for my wife’s family. But they used to do it once biweekly almost. Now we really cut it down,” Lam said by phone.

Calvin Chow, another long time Hong Kong resident, still socializes with the same groups of people, but has avoided meeting elderly relatives like his grandma, to further reduce their risk of infection, he wrote via email.

Memories of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which infected 1,755 Hong Kong residents and killed 299, are still deeply felt, locals say, making residents more vigilant about precautions, even as some level of pandemic fatigue has settled in. Mask-wearing too is ubiquitous, as is carrying around hand sanitizer and wipes.

“We have been through a terrible time with what happened with SARS, so people tend to be more disciplined,” Chan said.

Chow, who moved to Hong Kong from Toronto in 2004, missed the SARS outbreak, but still sees the impact.

“Even prior to the pandemic, if you sneezed or coughed in public without wearing a mask, you risked death stares from passersby, so the general population is quite accustomed to wearing masks in public if they felt unwell,” Chow said.

“It seems that in general people are not overly worried -- as long as they are wearing a mask, they feel safe going out and about in their daily routine … The attitude towards and acceptance of mask-wearing is, in my view, probably the single most important factor in keeping the infection rate in Hong Kong relatively low.”

Still, while cases have steadily declined below 100, local authorities have nonetheless been sounding the alarm about crowds and untraceable cases. In addition, with gyms, beauty salons, cinemas, and bars closed during the latest wave, retailers, restaurants and other businesses are suffering. One industry poll found 70 per cent of restaurants say they face the threat of closures in the coming quarter. The absence of international visitors due to border restrictions has compounded the impact on local businesses and hurt Hong Kong’s tourism industry, which contributed to about 4.5 per cent of Hong Kong’s GDP in 2018 and accounted for 6.6 per cent of the region’s total employment, according to the government.

SOUTH KOREA

Heading into the holidays, daily life in Seoul, South Korea was still relatively normal for Andrew Hou, his wife Kate Shin and their three children, despite COVID-19 restrictions that shut most businesses down by 9 p.m.

“Kate's super paranoid on the coronavirus … but even for her, it doesn't stop her from going out everyday,” Hou texted over WhatsApp messaging in mid-December just before the country marked its deadliest day of the pandemic.

Restaurants and shopping malls are all still open, everyone they know still goes into work, people still go out to meet friends, he added.

“Since Kate and I are totally busy with three kids, the coffee shop and night life isn't really part of our regular routine anyways. Once in a while when we meet friends … we either meet at a restaurant or get take-out and sit at a friend’s home.”

And do people socialize in bubbles? 

“What's this ‘bubble’ that (you’re) referring to?” he asked earnestly.

Like other places in Asia, mask wearing is ubiquitous -- it is almost hard to find someone without one, Hou said, adding that going to the doctor or a clinic at the slightest sign of illness is also very common.

“During 2.0 (restriction level), everyone was wearing masks even in gyms while sweating their butts off … because of the high population, there’s not much social distancing, in my opinion.”

To date, South Korea, which has a population of just over 51 million, has recorded more than 60,700 infections and 900 dead since January. The country drew early attention for being one of the first places outside China to see a major outbreak caused by a superspreader event sparked by a single individual dubbed “patient 31.” That was followed by accolades after the country’s quick response and early mass testing efforts quickly brought the outbreak under control.

But the country is now grappling with its third and worst wave, with health officials detecting its first case of the U.K. virus variant and new daily infections regularly topping more than 1,000 over the Christmas period -- capturing again how quickly things can change even in a country previously praised for its pandemic management efforts.

Still, Hou remains optimistic that the situation will turn around.

“I don't think anyone doubts it'll go back under control, mainly also because Korea still seems to have lower numbers compared to other countries....with the recent vaccine news, most people are just looking at the news and seeing how well it does in North America, and hope it'll get resolved soon.”