Sweden and Taiwan revisited
By Scott Sumner
On April 15, I did a post arguing that Sweden is not the right Covid-19 model for libertarians, rather Taiwan is the model. Now that we are in September, it’s time to revisit some of the arguments.
One argument is that countries trying to control Covid-19 were merely delaying the inevitable. You hear people saying “we’re all going to get it eventually”.
But are we? Russia and China are already beginning to roll out vaccines, and Western countries are expected to begin doing so relatively soon. Back in mid-April, Taiwan had suffered 6 deaths in a population of 24 million—today its death toll is 7. Sweden has suffered 5813 deaths in a country of only 10 million. It’s not obvious to me that everyone in Taiwan will get Covid-19 before vaccines are available.
Sweden’s GDP has fallen by 7.7% over the past year, which is better than the European average but worse than the average performance of its Nordic neighbors (as I predicted). Taiwan’s GDP is only down about 0.1% over the past 12 months. (Down 2.4% over the past 6 months, but even there it does much better than Sweden.) Thus while both countries refused to shut down schools and restaurants; Taiwan did far better in terms of both health outcomes and GDP growth.
The so-called “sophisticated” argument against my Taiwan/Sweden comparison focuses on structural differences between the two countries. And indeed there are many cultural, political and technological differences that do help to explain the differing outcomes. So (it’s claimed) perhaps there was no chance that the Swedes would undertake the Taiwanese approach in early 2020. I agree.
But I’d actually call that a “pseudo-sophisticated” argument, as on close examination it’s not very helpful. I do have a deterministic view of how history plays out, so I don’t disagree with the claim that Sweden was unlikely to adopt the Taiwanese model in early 2020. But that misses the whole point of analysis and criticism. The point is not to rerun history—that cannot be done—rather the point is to learn lessons so that we are better prepared next time around.
Let’s suppose that in 10 years another dangerous virus emerges in China. I am confident that people will recall that the Taiwanese approach worked far better than the Swedish approach. Thus a key “pre-existing condition” that led to the Swedish failure in 2020 will no longer be operative. The public and politicians will understand that with an aggressive system of mask wearing plus test/trace/isolate it will be possible to prevent the disease from becoming widespread in any country with reasonable state capacity and civic virtue (which describes Sweden.) People will know that Taiwan was able to keep its schools and restaurants open, its economy running, and also avoid thousands of pointless deaths. That’s a powerful example.
Or at least they’ll understand that mask wearing plus test/trace/isolate work if I have any say in the matter, which is why I continue to post on this issue.