Now, they’re among a number of places across Asia Pacific battling unprecedented outbreaks.
While the surge in cases can partly be explained by the highly contagious Omicron variant breaking through the region’s defenses, that’s not the whole story.
In some places, rising case numbers are a symptom of living with Covid as governments accept that trying to eradicate the virus is an unrealistic pursuit. In other places, skyrocketing cases are being blamed on a lack of planning by authorities caught off guard, despite two years of warning.
Asia’s highest ever peak
Many of the places reporting the most cases per capita in the Asia-Pacific region — which spans eastern and southern Asia and Oceania — were previously seen as success stories.
Those include South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Of those, two countries that have both been easing restrictions are driving the Asian case numbers — South Korea and Vietnam.
“(The Korean government) relaxed the current measures and social distancing even though the number of Covid cases were getting higher and higher,” he said.
Abhishek Rimal, the regional emergency health coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said Lunar New Year, which was celebrated at the start of the year in both countries, could have also contributed to the outbreaks.
Another factor, he said, was that both Vietnam and South Korea also have large testing capacities, which could also explain why they are finding more cases than other countries.
“They are testing, that is why they are getting it,” he said.
The countries now experiencing large numbers of cases all closed their borders at the start of the pandemic, leaving them largely shut off from the world. When Covid broke through, they used tracing, tracking and social distancing measures to bring outbreaks under control.
In the past few months, most have begun to shift toward a new approach: living with the virus.
After years of banning most foreign nationals, all of the places — apart from Hong Kong — eased border restrictions and relaxed rules for citizens.
The reasons behind that differ from place to place.
“We are more than two years into the pandemic … and people are really looking at going back to their normal life,” Rimal said.
But people in Hong Kong and China are still waiting to move forward with their lives. In both places, governments have maintained strict border rules — and people still live with social distancing measures and the threat of snap Covid lockdowns.
Vaccines are key
Even with soaring cases, some authorities across Asia Pacific don’t seem rattled for a simple reason: vaccines.
Besides the tiny Pacific island countries Tonga and the Cook Islands, New Zealand and South Korea are reporting the highest cases per capita in the region — but their death tolls remain relatively low.
South Korean authorities have pushed the same message.
“The number of confirmed cases continues to increase significantly, but the severity and fatality rate, and the medical system’s responsiveness, are considered manageable,” said health official Son Young-rae in a briefing on March 23. “(We) believe that once the peak of this Omicron wave passes, we’ll be able to convert to a system that is closer to a normal life.”
Both South Korea and New Zealand have high vaccine rates — but crucially, they have vaccinated their elderly, who are most vulnerable to severe illness and death from the virus.
And so far, that’s meant that while these countries have seen an increase in fatalities as their cases rise, they’ve still been able to keep death rates relatively low.
It’s a similar situation in New Zealand — while the country had one of the highest reported Covid cases per capita over the past week, when it comes to deaths per capita for the past week, it doesn’t even make the top 20 worldwide.
Again, the region’s outlier is Hong Kong.
The virus was able to rip through elderly homes, where vaccination rates were low.
The question over whether stringent measures are worth it is also playing out in mainland China, which is facing is biggest outbreak since the one recorded in Wuhan at the start of the pandemic.
And like Hong Kong, vaccinations among the elderly are lagging, raising concerns the city’s deadly outbreak may foreshadow a deadly wave across the border.
CNN’s Yoonjung Seo and Simone McCarthy contributed to this report.