Sweden is not the model (Taiwan is)
By Scott Sumner
People who don’t like government-mandated shutdowns often point to Sweden as a model. This is a mistake. Instead of pointing to a nation that has seen rapidly increasing deaths from coronavirus while avoiding lockdowns, we should be looking at a place with very few deaths from coronavirus, which also avoided widespread lockdowns.
It’s too soon to know how Sweden will do with its current policy. But given the fact that Sweden (10.1 million people) recorded 170 deaths today, vs. 11 in Norway (5.4 million) and 10 in Denmark (5.8 million), it’s not at all clear that they are succeeding. Certainly Sweden is doing better than a number of countries in Southern Europe, but overall their strategy doesn’t look all that promising.
In contrast, Taiwan (24 million) has recorded a total of 6 deaths during the entire epidemic. In recent weeks, there has been virtually no community transmission and just a few imported cases, which all go into quarantine. This is an amazing achievement for a place that was impacted early on due to very heavy travel back and forth with Mainland China. Yes, Taiwan is an island, but Sweden’s cases most likely are coming through international flights, not over the land borders with Finland and Norway.
You might wonder why these cases are so different. After all, haven’t they both followed the same policy of “no lockdown”? Haven’t they both put freedom and prosperity ahead of saving a few lives?
Actually, the cases are very different. Taiwan was impacted by the SARS epidemic, and its government took this issue very seriously. There was lots of testing, quarantining of those infected, and tracing of contacts. The Taiwanese people were encouraged to wear masks, and take other precautions.
As far as I can tell, the Swedes did not take the crisis as seriously, seeming to content themselves with the inevitability of mass infections. That’s a defensible strategy, but as each day goes by the evidence tilts more strongly in the Taiwanese direction.
I worry that libertarianism might come to be associated with the Swedish approach, whereas there are other approaches that don’t involve government-mandated shutdowns and that are more effective in reducing deaths.
Inevitably, people always suggest that for “cultural” reasons countries like South Korea and Taiwan have no lessons for the West. (Actually, Sweden’s culture is also quite different from America’s culture; so then why take lessons from Sweden?) Wired magazine has a very good article that pushes back against the “docile” Asian stereotype:
But the truth is that Taiwan, one of Asia’s most vibrant and boisterous democracies, is a terrible example to cite as a cultural other populated by submissive peons. . . .
First, and most important was Taiwan’s experience battling the SARS outbreak in 2003, followed by the swine flu in 2009. In the middle of the worst of the outbreak in 2003, the current vice president, Chen Chien-jen, was appointed minister of health and won widespread praise for taking quick and decisive action. The threat of SARS put Taiwan on high alert for future outbreaks, while the past record of success at meeting such challenges seems to have encouraged the public to accept socially intrusive technological interventions. (Jason Wang, a Stanford clinician who coauthored a report on Taiwan’s containment strategy, also told me via email that the government’s “special powers to integrate data and track people were only allowed during a crisis,” under the provisions of the Communicable Disease Control Act.)
Taiwan’s commitment to transparency has also been critical. In the United States, the Trump administration ordered federal health authorities to treat high-level discussions on the coronavirus as classified material. . . .
But Taiwan’s own success at building a functional democracy is probably the most potent rebuke to the Asian values thesis. The democracy activists who risked their lives and careers during the island nation’s martial law era were not renowned for their willingness to accept government orders or preach Confucian social harmony.
It’s not uncommon to see fistfights break out in Taiwan’s parliament. I’ve spent a lot of time in China, and I can assure you that people there are not especially likely to follow rules. Chinese culture is nothing like Japanese culture.
Our tendency to discount Asian models and look at European alternatives reflects a deep-seated culture bias that many Westerners are not even aware of.
Another common mistake is to conflate “opposition to extreme social distancing” with “libertarianism”. If America today were a 100% free market economy with no regulation, we would still be in a deep depression due to people freely choosing to isolate themselves.
PS. In a recent post, I pointed out that Sri Lanka was called Ceylan when I was young. I can also recall when Taiwan was called “Formosa”. For some reason, when countries change their names I almost always prefer the old one. Who likes Myanmar more than “Burma”? Some say we should respect the choice of the locals. It’s OK to believe that, as long as I don’t hear you calling Deutschland “Germany”.