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Three COVID-19 Counterexamples: Taiwan, Singapore, and Sweden


Taiwan

Posted on: April 20, 2020

By Andrew Carver

“Can any governor or county executive simply flick his pen and shut every business even if it doesn’t create crowds? Can they unilaterally restrict every aspect of the Bill of Rights indefinitely without any oversight, due process, benchmarks, or transparency?

“In Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the Supreme Court … made it clear that there is a point where states can enact [public-safety] policies in ‘such an arbitrary, unreasonable manner, or might go so far beyond what was reasonably required for the safety of the public’ that they would be outside constitutional bounds.[1] …​

“We’ve simply never done this before in our history. These are not mere quarantine laws that supporters cite to justify what is going on today. Quarantine laws traditionally separate an individual or an entire group of people from the general population. What we are doing now, however, is locking down the entire general population.”  — Daniel E. Horowitz, “Is this quarantine or tyranny?,” March 31, 2020

Judging from the transparency — or rather, the lack thereof — they’ve shown on both COVID-19 and “climate change,” the governmental “powers that be” expect us simply to take for granted that they know best about scientific questions — and (of course) that they have our best interests at heart. By contrast, we “little people” should consider ourselves too simple to comprehend scientific matters — much less, to take part in serious discussions of them. We should just trust that the government — and tax-exempt foundations set up by the wealthy — know best!

Specifically, and in the current case, we’re supposed to take it on faith that the near destruction of the whole world-economy, through “social distancing,” is scientifically necessary in order to avoid COVID-19 catastrophe. (Nor have they asked us whether  the COVID-19 catastrophe isn’t the preferable option!)

However, if the “powers that be” do know best and have our best interests at heart, then why haven’t we heard much about the sensible, non-draconian approaches of countries that have avoided both the economic and the (warned-of) COVID-19 catastrophe — for example, Taiwan, Singapore, and Sweden? And, why haven’t other Western governments been adopting such approaches — rather than the China-pioneered, general “lockdowns” and “shutdowns”?

Only one plausible answer to that question seems available: Whether “the powers that be” “know best” or not, we may rest assured that our best interests are about the furthest thing from their hearts. Let us, then, look more closely at Taiwan’s, Singapore’s, and Sweden’s successful — yet non-draconian — approaches.

Taiwan’s and Singapore’s Responses to the Coronavirus

The Establishment media have not been able to maintain a total “blackout” on Taiwan’s success in combatting COVID-19. That success is too remarkable and too clear.

However, though the media are now reporting on what Taiwan has overtly done to control the COVID-19 outbreak, for the most part the media have (strenuously, it seems) avoided mentioning what Taiwan has not been doing.[2] That is likely because Taiwan eschewed the almost universal, dire “social distancing,” “lockdown,” and economic shutdown the rest of us are supposed to endure.

“Quick action” and “aggressive measures” are what helped Taiwan — so they keep telling us. They highlight Taiwan’s advanced databases of its citizens’ travel histories, along with its ability to attach those data to the same citizens’ entries in the country’s National Health Insurance (NHI) database.  By limiting the discussion to Taiwan’s actions, mainstream media manage to color Taiwan’s successful virus-containment as a shining example of technocracy — rather than, one of government transparency as well — and much less, one of maintaining constitutional, limited government while quarantining individual dangerous cases.

It is true that Taiwan did take “quick action” — notably with regard to checking people arriving from Wuhan (ultimately banning flights from most of China), and in implementing short-term quarantine for people who had recently traveled from “level 3 alert areas.” In fact, Taiwan’s preparation for a new virus outbreak started in 2004, the year after the SARS epidemic killed 73 people there. Since that experience, “Taiwan has been on constant alert and ready to act on epidemics arising from China,” reports a Mar. 3 JAMA article.

Taiwan has been very careful about making sure (and strictly enforcing with penalties) that the risk cases, who are quarantined, stay there as long as assigned — generally, two weeks. It is also true that Taiwan appended to the end of the Lunar New Year holiday, a further two-week closure of elementary schools and high schools (classes resumed Feb. 25). Moreover, it implemented rules calling for additional two-week closures of any schools where cases of the coronavirus were detected.[3]

Currently schools’ policy is to take students, teachers, and workers’ temperatures. If fevers are detected, classes in that school are suspended, but massive class suspensions do not occur. At the same time, online teaching is being encouraged, but is not being forced by the government. In many Taiwanese universities, online teaching is being promoted in order to let those who are not able to attend class in person to take courses. Although it is true that online education as a way to avoid infections has already been adopted in other countries, the peculiarity of Taiwan lies in the fact that it has not been imposed by government order….​ The government’s transparency of information has also given the Taiwanese enterprises the time they need to voluntarily prepare and adopt teleworking progressively. — Javier Caramés Sanchez and William Hongsong Wang, “Why Taiwan Hasn’t Shut Down Its Economy,” Mises Wire, March 26, 2020

But the pro-active stance and quick action explain more about Taiwan’s extraordinarily low case-numbers, than it does about how they achieved them with only very limited impact on their economic activity (the only industry hit by government restrictions was the airline industry). After all, it’s not as if there was no introduction of the virus into the country: In an article unusually balanced for the Establishment-controlled media, the New York Times stated that “As of Friday [Mar. 13], about 58 percent of all confirmed cases in Taiwan were believed to have resulted from local transmission.”

Broadly speaking, Singapore’s approach has been parallel to Taiwan’s. In regard to schools, in fact, Singapore has shown even more accommodation of private citizens’ needs:

Large gatherings have been suspended. But to minimize social and economic costs, schools and workplaces have remained open. The Singaporean Ministry of Education — on an extensive FAQs web page — calls the closing of schools “a major, major decision” that would “disrupt many lives.” Instead, students and staff are subjected to daily health checks, including temperature screenings. — Benjamin J. Cowling and Wey Wen Lim, “They’ve Contained the Coronavirus. Here’s How,” New York Times, March 13, 2020

National Post article summarizes correctly that these two countries “seem to have found the sweet spot between a laissez-faire ‘it’s just like the flu’ reaction, and imposition of economically devastating lockdowns. Both nations have concentrated [not on imposing lockdowns and shutdowns, but] on strictly isolating people who have or might have COVID-19, tightly controlling international travel and zealously pursuing those who had contact with the infected.”

Sweden’s Thoughtful, Commonsensical Approach

In its particulars, Sweden’s approach has differed somewhat from Taiwan’s and Singapore’s. But like Singapore and Taiwan, Sweden took the traditional approach to what “quarantine” is — namely, isolating sick people, to keep their disease from being caught by well people. And although, like Britain, they do not claim “herd immunity” is their goal, they do recognize that the latter is the likeliest way for the outbreak to come to a graceful end.

Fredrik Erixon, a Swede who directs the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels, was eloquent on the real difference in Sweden’s approach:

Managing the virus is a long game, and while herd immunity is not the Swedish strategy, it may well be where we all end up. The theory of lockdown, after all, is pretty niche, deeply illiberal — and, until now, untested. It’s not Sweden that’s conducting a mass experiment. It’s everyone else.

The main advice from [Anders] Tegnell [who is Sweden’s “state epidemiologist”] et al is repeated like a mantra ten times a day: be sensible. Stay at home if you feel sick. Oh, and wash your hands. But individuals, companies, schools and others are trusted to figure out on their own what precautions to take.

This Swedish exceptionalism is about principle, not epidemiology. It’s true that we’re perhaps less at risk due to our high rate of single-person households and low number of smokers. Closing the schools would, as well, have a bigger impact in a country where almost all mums are working mums. But frankly, all these explanations miss the point: yes, they make us different to Italy and Spain, but not to Denmark, Finland and Norway. Sweden simply made the call to take measures that don’t destroy the free society. — Fredrik Exton, “No lockdown, please, we’re Swedish,” The Spectator (U.K.), April 4, 2020

Tellingly, even the website of the World Economic Forum — one of the foremost pandemic-fear stokers of recent decades — had a helpful post, basically admitting there is nothing faulty with the science behind Sweden’s approach.

The Take-away from These COVID-19 Experiences — Oh, and Hong Kong’s!

By no means have these three countries been left unscathed by COVID-19 (and/or similar viruses). But the important thing to glean from their experiences is what they tell us about what’s not necessary to fight this “novel coronavirus.” Specifically, it says that quarantining healthy individuals who have no known reason for being susceptible, is unnecessary — and thus, a gross infringement of basic liberty.

Though it seems surprising to be able to cite the New York Times in summing up, the final paragraph of its March 13 article said it well (though having discussed Hong Kong instead of Sweden):

[T]he central point is this: Each in its own way, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong — three places with markedly different socioeconomic and political features — have been able to interrupt the chain of the disease’s transmission. And they have done so without embracing the highly disruptive, drastic measures adopted by China. Their success suggests that other governments can make headway, too. — Benjamin J. Cowling and Wey Wen Lim, “They’ve Contained the Coronavirus. Here’s How,” New York Times, March 13, 2020


1. Corroborating the general legal principle that Horowitz cites is, for example, a 1962 Colorado state court case opinion, which points out that “If a statute purporting to have been enacted to protect the public health, morals, safety, or common welfare has no real or substantial relation to these objects, and for that reason is a clear invasion of the constitutional freedom of the people to use, enjoy or dispose of their property without unreasonable governmental interference, the courts will declare it void.” Colo. Anti-Discrimination Comm’n v. Case, 151 Colo. 235, 380 P.2d 34 (1962).
2. Typical is an April 7, 2020 Atlantic Council post “Lessons from Taiwan’s experience with COVID-19”: They discuss 4 lessons, but overlook the vital lesson — that general lockdowns and shutdowns are quite unnecessary. The title of an April 3 Democracy Now! post summarized this theme well: “How Taiwan Contained COVID-19: Early Action, Technology & Millions of Face Masks.”
A couple of rare exceptions to this mainstream tendency were a March 13 New York Times article, “They’ve Contained the Coronavirus. Here’s How.”, and a March 31 National Post article, “How Taiwan and Singapore managed to contain COVID-19, while letting normal life go on”. Outside the mainstream, and more in character, was a balanced, March 26 Mises Institute post.
3. According to a data-supplement to the Mar. 3, JAMA article:
– If 1+ in a class (student or teacher) at the K-9 level diagnosed with COVID-19, class is suspended for 14 days
– If 2+ cases in a school, school is closed for 14 days
– If one-third of schools in a township, city, or district are shut down, all others are closed
– If a student or teacher is diagnosed in a high school, college, or university, all classes they attend or teach is suspended for 14 days
– If 2+ cases of COVID-19 in an institution at any level, it will close for 14 days

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