Corona and Europe’s Idiocy
550 new coronavirus cases in Berlin yesterday. 7,000 in Germany. 110,000 in the European Union, which at 240 per million people is even higher than the US, which is at 200/million. French hospitals are flooded with corona patients, and the state expresses its grave concerns but will still not set up quarantine hotels or universalize the use of surgical masks or do anything else that Taiwan did in less time. This is the second wave, and seven months after Taiwan showed the way how to deal with this and ended up being the only country this year to have positive economic growth to boot, Europe (and the US) still stays in its comfort zone of mass death.
It’s worth discussing the excuses, because so many of them port well to the realm of public transportation, where Europe is not so bad (there are even things East Asia can learn from us); Europe’s real disaster compared with rich Asia is in urbanism and its resistance to tall buildings. But the United States is horrific on all matters of transportation and urban redevelopment and the excusemaking there is ensuring no infrastructure can be built.
Excuse #1: the restricted comparison
The Max Planck Society (MPG) put out a statement three weeks ago, with some interesting insights about the need for a multi-pronged strategy, including contact tracing, hygiene, and social distancing. But it kept engaging in these silly intra-European comparisons, praising Germany in contrast with Britain. At no point was there any engagement with East Asia, even though we know that Taiwan has not had community spread since April, and that in Korea and Japan the current rates are about 2 and 4 daily cases per million people respectively.
Excuse #2: bullshit about culture
I’m told that there is general understanding within Germany that Taiwan and South Korea are doing far better. However, people keep making up cultural reasons why Europe can’t have what East and Southeast Asia have. This excuse unfortunately is not restricted to people who are totally unaware: a few months ago, Michel Bauwens, a Belgian degrowth advocate who lives in Thailand, talked up Thailand’s corona suppression, but attributed it to a communitarian, collectivist culture. The Thais are mass-protesting their autocratic government’s state of emergency (while wearing masks, unlike Western anti-regime protesters); what collectivism? The actual policy differences – mandatory centralized quarantine for people who test positive, mask wearing mandates – were not mentioned.
When I bring up the necessity of centralized quarantine, and even the fact that Israel used corona hotels to nearly eradicate the virus in the first wave (the second wave came from mass abandonment of social distancing – MPG is right about multi-pronged strategies), Europeans and Americans keep making a “but freedom” line. It’s strange. Yes, Thailand is autocratic. But Taiwan and South Korea are not – and they had authoritarian governments within living memory, and both are currently run by political parties that emerged out of democratic opposition to autocracy in the 1980s and 90s, and that far from becoming autocrats themselves, ceded power peacefully when they lost reelection in the past.
Excuse #3: the fake tradeoff
Many aspects of policy involve genuine tradeoffs. But many others don’t, and corona protection is one. Taiwan is the only developed country that is projecting positive economic growth in 2020. South Korea is projecting 1% contraction, the smallest contraction in the OECD, of which Taiwan is not a member. There is no economy-death tradeoff. Plowing through with reopening before the virus has been suppressed just means mass closures later and a weaker economy. The only major suppression country that is seeing economic contraction is Thailand, whose economy is based heavily on tourism and therefore more sensitive to crises outside its borders than are the industrial export-based economies of Taiwan and Korea.
Excuse #4: learned helplessness
I write occasionally about the importance of state capacity, but centralized quarantine is not some specialized technique only available to the most advanced states. It was routine in developed countries until the 1960s, when the incidence of infectious disease had fallen to a point that it was no longer necessary. The same is true of social distancing – Nigeria for example has used it and appears to be successful, with semi-decent test positivity rates and lower per capita confirmed infections than Korea.
However, various leaders keep saying “we can’t.” This is not about technical matters. Rather, it’s about political ones: we can’t established corona hotels, we can’t ban indoor dining and drinking, we can’t scale up surgical mask production like Taiwan did 8 months ago and require people to wear surgical masks in public. The only thing Europe seems capable of doing is prohibiting travel from countries that at this point often have less corona than we do.
This is learned helplessness. Risk-averse politicians who know on some level what needs to be done are still too spineless to do it, even knowing very well that successfully suppressing corona is an amazing crowd booster.
The connection with infrastructure
All of the above problems also lead to disastrous infrastructure projects. This is to some extent a problem in Germany, where “we can’t” is a common excuse for surrender to NIMBY opposition; this is why certain key high-speed rail segments have yet to be built. But it’s a truly massive drag on the English-speaking world, especially the United States. I have seen advocates engage in internal-only comparisons within the last 24 hours; the other excuses, I saw earlier this week, and many times in the last few months, with so many different American transit managers incanting “it’s not apples-to-apples” whenever Eric and I ask them about costs. One literally said “we can’t” and “it’s not possible” and is regionally viewed as progressive and forward-thinking.
In the same manner Europeans discount any knowledge produced outside of Europe and the United States, Americans discount everything produced outside their country. Occasionally they’ll glance at Canada and Britain to affirm prior prejudices. They treat foreign language fluency as either dilettantism or immigrant poverty and not as a critical skill in the modern world right next to literacy and numeracy. They’ll flail about as they die of corona and blame one another when, just as the EU flag today is twelve yellow coronaviruses on a field of blue, the US flag is fifty white viruses on a field of blue with red and white stripes.
Even though Australia has had a good corona outcome relative to the rest of the west, it suffers exactly the same issues you describe. The state of Victoria has had the worst outbreak (a so-called second wave) and the Premier has come under intense pressure to remove lockdown however, even though it has suppressed the second-wave (itself due to aged-care homes and private security running quarantine hotels incompetently) to the point of about 6 cases/day, he is still reluctant. The reason is partly because it is suspected Victoria still doesn’t have test-and-trace working adequately to cope with any further community cases (almost certain if lockdown is released) and that nothing will stop a third wave if lockdown is relaxed. All the official messaging is on stuff that by itself won’t, and has been shown not to, prevent transmission: social distancing, handwashing, obsessive “deep cleaning” of surfaces. Of course social distancing would have an impact but the western world has shown itself incapable of self-discipline in this regard. Lockdown is the only version of social distancing that works, ie. zero social contact.
Other than the issues you describe, I also believe these lockdowns have created a mindset that once we have been through lockdown and “done it tough” (an Australianism that makes me grind my teeth) then we can go back to BAU. When my state relaxed lockdown there were parties everywhere including at both my neighbouring apartments that went into the early morning. There have been a few lonely voices about masks but even celeb tv doc Norman Swan on the public broadcaster is relatively subdued these days–I reckon higher powers have leaned on him to not say stuff that conflicts with official advice!
In the rich west we have infantilised ourselves to the point that both officialdom and the so-called experts (at the apex of the health system, and police) cannot bring themselves to make rational decisions, because they either are too dumb to understand from east Asia, or they simply don’t believe their citizens will accept or act on such advice. There’s also some panic about likely vaccine hesitancy; of all things I can hardly think of anything so dumb and infantile. The same traits lead to electing buffoons like Boris and Trump (and Morrison though he appears relatively adult by comparison!).
It is immensely depressing. One inevitably has to come to the conclusion that these things represent decline–and with a whimper rather than a bang. And that the east Asians will be ascendant.
Didn’t Australia suppress and then get a resurgence because of some bribery scandal at a quarantine hotel? Or was it a sex scandal? I forget…
Sex (between security guards and the quarantined) had something to do with it but the prime cause was the total unprofessionalism of the private security guards. I don’t even blame them because they are casualised low-paid and untrained workers who have testified in the ongoing Royal Commission into the mess that the company didn’t given them any training and often asked them to provide their own PPE! Despite the contract specifying that the company is responsible for these things. The inquiry hasn’t identified yet who made the decision to employ private security for this job. Everyone in the chain of command has denied it was them. And they may be correct in that use of such outsourcing has become the default in the Anglosphere, and that does correlate with out of control infrastructure costs. Witness the UK and their absurd test-and-trace operation run by Deloitte and Serco. In Victoria’s case it seems a turning point was a letter (or maybe a bloody tweet) from the state police and maybe the feds (AFP) that their preference was not to have to handle such things–that they could transport people to the hotels but that’s all. So now we allow the police to decide if they want to do a job or not–btw, this point has gone completely unremarked as if it is normal for the police to pick and choose what they do. There is also head-butting between the feds and state govt because the former claim they offered Victoria the military for such things while Vic claims they never received such an offer. This inability to even identify the very basics of operational decisions is also reminiscent of infrastructure cost explosions.
Re lockdown, on public radio this morning there was an instructive–and disturbing–example of the wild strains of irrationality running thru society. A Melbourne bloke who sounded like a professional and perfectly sensible, began whingeing about the lockdown and how it was making him ponder re-emigrating to the UK for which he had a passport! This is the freedom virus that seems more powerful than the real virus. Nevermind that in the past 24 hours the UK had almost as many new cases (19k) as Australia has had in the whole 9 months (27k) and 138 deaths versus zero deaths! And nevermind that no one, least of all the people supposedly running the UK, knows where this latest European escalating outbreak is going to end up, not to mention that it is coinciding with Brexit. Or as one wit observed, there have been more cases in the White House in the past week than all of ANZ …
At leas the UK *has* an actual test and trace operation, unlike most of the USA
Not if you’re Outraged of Tunbridge Wells:
How/Why does Vietnam and Taiwan have high construction costs and low Corona?
How/Why does Spain have low construction costs and high Corona?
Seems like there isn’t much correlation construction costs and Corona?
There indeed isn’t! State capacity isn’t a one-dimensional variable. Even on the same general topic, you can find issues on which East Asia flails and Northern Europe leads (e.g. decarbonization of electricity) and issues that are the exact opposite (e.g. urban density).
Didn’t Stockholm build the million housing?
Also, Nordic countries aren’t exactly space constrained… Building to traditional density seems sufficient
I really think you’re too quick to discount the island issue. Australia and New Zealand have had relatively good COVID outcomes despite plenty of ineffective infrastructure construction. The ability to actually close borders and enforce immigration quarantine is a powerful tool that most of Europe (and the Americas) really has no way to do.
Europe’s borders aren’t even open. That’s the one restriction that’s been in place continuously, because it doesn’t inconvenience the Bild readers, only the people the Bild readers hate.
But there’s tons of intra-Schengen travel, this is how Croatia eventually went down. Spain in part as well, I think. It is easier to contain Taiwan and Australia than a 420 million island.
Yeah, a lot of people are talking about size, but the second most populous developed country is Japan and has pretty low infection rates. Taiwan classifies it as a medium-risk country, not even a high-risk one.
Prof. Drosten says their head epidemiologist bet on a certain theory and was proven right. I forgot the details…
Croatia isn’t a Schengen state.
But the US’s borders closed anyway. We may as well have closed the borders early on (or even better, set up a rigorous quarantine like Taiwan) and skipped the death and disease. Also Canada, also not an island, has performed better than the US and Europe despite the long, porous border with the US and close proximity to the US’s biggest hot spot, New York.
Being an island may help, but that isn’t a good reason not to try everything possible. Some measures may not work but if they do you avoid a lot of pain.
despite the long, porous border with the US
It’s not quite so porous these days.
Are there borders that are longer?
You cannot hope to patrol miles and miles of forest….
They patrol it. NIce neat line carved through the trees. And grasslands. Not much to mow in the middle of the lakes.
Not a lot of people cross the border in remote places. And it takes them quite a while to get someplace where there are other people.
@Joseph: “But the US’s borders closed anyway. We may as well have closed the borders early on (or even better, set up a rigorous quarantine like Taiwan) and skipped the death and disease. ”
Yeah, but it is returning Americans that brought the disease back home and there’s never been any suggestion of preventing them returning, which as it happens is something Australia* has done. It seems nothing could protect America from its cultural stupidity.
An Italian epidemiological study revealed that their Chinese diaspora returning home actually protected, not only their local Chinese communities but also those native-born around them, ie. in Italy. They were savvy to the issues of this kind of respiratory disease, knew what they had to do and of course, unlike Americans or to be fair most of the west, had the discipline to implement it. That this worked even in the northern Italy where the disease was first and worst in Europe, and in a severely stressed healthcare system, shows that, as Alon wrote, the excuses that those Asian ways cannot work ‘here’ are nonsense.
* Controversially there was an early deadline after which there was a small quota (600 per day IIRC) that has left a queue of about 100,000 or more stranded overseas; also those returning after this deadline have to quarantine in a designated hotel for 14 days at their own expense. They are driven there from the airport by the AFP (Australian Federal Police) where they are then at the mercy of private security firms. This is driving some people’s finances to the edge because of airlines selling only top-priced First Class seats, often expensive accommodation in their now visa-expired host country etc.
@Michael, Citizens returning is an issue, true, but Taiwan was able to deal with it (and I assume South Korea as well), and at least before March Canada and Mexico weren’t sources of spread into the US so a phased closure/implementation of quarantine rules could have been done there.
That’s an interesting point about the Chinese diaspora in Italy.
That is exactly Alon’s (and my) point: Taiwan, and Hong Kong and South Korea were able to deal with an even bigger people exchange with the PRC. The US ignored it –other than counterproductive Chinese-bashing.
Incidentally, a survey of those Australians stranded overseas revealed they would readily accept electronic bracelet tags as a substitute for quarantine hotels. I believe South Korea successfully implemented such a system, and their phone contact-tracing app was mandated and considered by the west to be too intrusive, but we don’t try these things that have worked elsewhere because our politicians pre-empt the rightwing frothing anger over their fake freedoms. I think it would be relatively simple: give returnees a ‘free’ choice: mandatory 14d stay in quarantine hotel at their own expense or e-tag bracelets for 14d (with mandatory testing etc). There would be a predictable outcry, amplified by the Murdochracy, but those who really want to return without spreading covid would agree.
How could South Korea mandate a phone contact-tracing app without 100% of South Koreans actually owning a smartphone (which sounds unlikely)?
Part of the problem in the US is probably how adversarial politics has become, even locality by locality. No thanks to the current administration, there is an extremely large subset of people who do not want to believe that masking or social distancing is necessary. So here in Washington Seattle has pretty high mask compliance and pretty low case/positivity per capita these days, yet even in the rest of the county rates are rising because people do not believe in complying. And this is where the executives are actually *consistent*; don’t get me started on how Cuomo and de Blasio’s petty feuds have made the virus so much worse than it needed to be in NYC, including the current situation with the Hasidic community. It’s hard to look outside for good advice when you can barely get consensus on even the most basic measures; no state or city (except Hawaii and Alaska) can just close their borders with less stringent jurisdictions because violating such porous borders at the state, county or local level would be extremely trivial.
You can arguably say the same about Taiwan with the Kuomintang trying to poke holes at the Tsai Ing-wen administration any way they can, or the whole Han Kuo-yu mess. This is the country that made legislature brawls common, after all.
I think the good part about Taiwan’s handling of the crisis was not trusting anything the Peking authorities said and outright slamming their border shut before it could slip in from the PRC, and presumably quite acceptable given the state of cross strait relations. Not sure if you can say the same about the rest of the country’s politics.
The key in Taiwan is that allowing a deadly epidemic to spread is political poison. No one wants to be pro-Covid, even if it’s inconvenient to their ideology. Health issues are generally much more prominent than in the US, where people assume it can’t happen here, and if it does then it can’t be that bad. On top of that, Taiwanese voters are quick to abandon politicians who fail to deliver policy wins. Even hardcore pro-independence youth were ready to abandon Tsai because they felt she didn’t do enough. If the KMT undermined Tsai’s epidemic response they couldn’t be sure their already shrunken base wouldn’t shrink even more. In contrast in the US there’s very little a politician can do to lose more than a few percentage points of their base.
My New Zealand perspective: we have had two waves now and both have been completely suppressed to zero. Seems good right? But this was, in the first wave, entirely achieved by draconian measures that stopped virtually all movement, something that isn’t the case in the exemplar nations of East Asia.
In the second wave the measures were slightly less draconian and were supplemented by centralised quarantine hotels and much more extensive testing. Throughout the border has been extremely tightly controlled, you still can’t get in unless you are an NZ resident or have a special wavier from the govt.
My broad take is that the govt here has been much more concerned with showing that they are taking the pandemic seriously by taking highly visible (and highly disruptive) actions rather than highly effective ones. Needless to say the economic costs have been very large (one of the more absurd outcomes has been a huge increase in house prices).
I’d say Western governments are more interested in good optics than good outcomes but that can result in variable outcomes. Eastern governments seem to be more interested in good outcomes first (well Japan is an odd case though *scratches head*).
“Needless to say the economic costs have been very large”
Presumably they were high at the beginning, but will be low from now on
“one of the more absurd outcomes has been a huge increase in house prices”
How would that be connected?
I don’t know but suspect it may be more related to tomorrow’s election when Saint Jacinda is predicted to get Labour a majority in their own right. So, without messy coalitions there may be various socialist policies to counterbalance the crazy house price inflation and subsequent housing crisis/homeless problem that NZ has had for at least a decade. Last gasp of loose finance etc etc (typical Anglosphere neoliberalism gone nuts).
NZ First was wiped out, but a new Libertarian Populist Party has emerged…
The most significant outcomes are that Labour have obtained a majority in their own right, and that Ardern indicates she will probably enter a coalition with the Greens who may end up with ten seats. Wise. Other than better government it will probably win her the next election too.
Elsewhere, also on last Saturday in the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) the Labor + Greens have won comprehensively giving Labor a 6th consecutive term in office, 3 of them in coalition with the Greens. An Australian record. In fact the Labor vote held steady while the Greens surged.
No accident that both these electorates use PR (MMP for NZ; Hare-Clark for ACT). Meanwhile another state (Qld) election happens in 2 weeks and Labor looks like consolidating another long run of government. However, revealing the idiocy of partisan politics forced by the electoral system, the Labor leader has to swear on the lives of her children that she will never, ever, never until hell freezes over, form government with the Greens (who look like grabbing a few extra seats). Because, you know, the Greens may prefer no new mega-coal mines or gas fracking on farmland.
I should have also mentioned that the ACT election was also a confirmation of Canberra’s light rail policy about which the conservatives have been relentlessly negative including a locally-active and far-right religious flunky of Murdoch’s who has been writing blatantly political OpEds in Rupe’s national broadsheet (her husband happens to also be one of the most senior editors on the paper; this is the same bloke after his summer in Tuscany wrote an OpEd claiming Italy’s 5-colour coded recycling bins was all too much for Australians to cope with). I wonder if she will shut up now? No, these people never give it up even when the public have given such a clear verdict. Note also that this is why conservatives hate equitable electoral systems such as Canberra’s (ACTs) Hare-Clark which gives the Greens fair representation, and has led to essentially permanent progressive government. If only federal and state Labor understood this (though they will claim most of the Australian electorate is not as informed or as progressive as the ACT’s which is a fair point).
In yesterday’s Conversation:
Canberra Light Rail – 100 years in the making…
Better late than never …
Opponents of the plan complain that Canberra was designed as a car city so it is a travesty and sin against the original vision! However they are totally wrong in that it was in fact designed as a classic (American) trolley-car city because the competition (1912) to design the city was won by Americans Walter Burley Griffin*, and, largely unacknowledged, his partner Marion Mahony, who were students of Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago. This was ‘peak tram’ in big cities around the world. It’s true that in typical Australian procrastination, and timidity of big plans and big spending, it took 50 years until the plan was seriously enacted in the post-war period.
*commemorated in the artificial Lake Burley Griffin the city is built around.
For those interested in this rare example of a successful planned capital:
Contrary to the jokes told around Australia about Canberra being the most boring city in Australia, maybe the world, those who live there love it. I am guilty of once writing a spoof titled “Ten things to do in Can’bra when you’re dead” with the likes of: “Death still knocks more in some states and territories than others. On a proportionate basis, there’s a much better chance of attending a funeral in the Northern Territory (standardised death rate 8.04) than in the ACT (SDR 5.16 – but some might argue there’s not much difference between being alive and dead in Canberra anyway).”
Giant releases of money in the form of wage subsidies to businesses and very low interest rates alongside an easing in mortgage restrictions. With people unable to leave the country to travel there is a lot of money now instead being diverted into houses; prices were already very high in the big cities now they are equalising out across the whole country to match those of the metropole.
Yes economic costs will decline somewhat earlier than those countries that haven’t tackled Covid and a lot of those costs would have been unavoidable either way (tourism), but there have still been plenty of boneheaded decisions. Well I should say that the govt response has not been completely terrible or anything, but that it is still falling short of the East Asian democracies in some respects (which was the point of Alon’s post after all).
“With people unable to leave the country to travel there is a lot of money now instead being diverted into houses”
That’s sort of… underwhelming as an example of government failure, no?
The context is that house prices being too high has been a problem for about 18 years, with only a minor break in their climb for the 2008 crash. Labour’s number one issue when they came into power 3 years ago was to do something about that, instead the problem is now worsening at a much greater rate than in the prior 10 years.
Wasn’t Labour stymied by their coalition with NZ First (Winston Peters)?
However, it’s not clear if Ardern really has a solution even if building more social housing is necessary, is it sufficient? Clearly no, it is not enough. The Greens want a Wealth Tax and a CGT both of which impact housing but Ardern has summarily and seemingly irreversibly rejected this approach. I presume these differences will have to be ironed out in any negotiations to form a coalition in the next week or two. Seemingly Ardern has the upper hand but I’m not so sure since if she remains dogmatic on this stuff, she will remain truly naked and solely responsible to fail to solve these problems. I’m sceptical of people like Ardern who describe themselves as Centrist (in fact Centre-Right) yet naively expect to change basics (housing crisis, gross inequity, poverty) without changing the fundamentals of our neolib capitalism responsible for them. As usual these Centrist-Rightists will point the finger at the Greens or any true social-democrats, calling them inflexible and demanding perfection at the cost of small advances, but ten or twenty years on (climate change, housing crises all over the developed world, growing inequality etc) it is the Greens and their consistent policies that are proven correct. The main advantage of NZ is that there is no Murdoch media influence.
Also, Ardern has earned a giant pot of goodwill but is she able to burn some of that political capital to achieve meaningful change? One hopes that her lack of progress in her first term will have taught her some lessons on bringing change.
Hmm, Ardern has been pretty clear in saying that she doesn’t want to bring meaningful change (most especially to housing). Whatever else you may say about her I judge her to be a pretty honest person so I’m confident she wont change her mind and decide to bring meaningful change after all.
If she does enter into an agreement with the Greens I’m fairly sure it will only cover environmental issues.
Actually I am pretty sure solving NZ’s long-term housing crisis was high on her priority list of things to do, followed by reducing child poverty and inequality (NZ is well down the OECD just before the UK and USA, and worse because it’s a poorer country). In her first term she found it was much more difficult to change and so last year she had a major change of policy but it doesn’t mean those things don’t remain top priorities.
The problem with the Anglosphere is that the housing finance Ponzi schemes are a mainstay of money creation and therefore their economies. So messing with it risks economic meltdown.
OTOH, as the maxim goes, never let a crisis go to waste. Since they have economic meltdown it is a rare opportunity to bring real change. As I said she even has the political capital and some time to try it. I’m not saying she will. In fact I have had it with these Centrists but I’ll give Ardern the benefit of the doubt for a while …
Boris and Dom treat crises as political opportunities. Merkel doesn’t. Which country is less fucked up right now?
Well, yes, they are political opportunities which could be for good or evil. Ardern really does have a major opportunity here because the country would be receptive (the Overton window is wide open) to significant change after decades of everything getting worse (except for the wealthy). The problem is that Centrists consider any such change as ‘radical leftist’ no matter how logical or justified it is. Here is an extract from a recent report by the UN:
She could be a transformative leader so it will be very disappointing if she remains an ineffectual Centrist.
No, it’s never good or evil. I do not trust leaders who exploit crises. I prefer ones who do not, because they don’t have an incentive to create crises that let them step in and be the hero.
You’re dreaming of some perfect world. In the real world it is so difficult to make progress that the occurrence of a crisis can create the conditions for real change. And not only am I happy for that to happen but it is crucial because change seems to be becoming ever more difficult. As a geneticist I see it in very similar terms: when the environment presents a huge challenge then life must evolve to meet that challenge (“exploiting a crisis”) or lose to other life that does adapt. The Great Depression, WW2 laid the foundations of post-war social compacts throughout the rich world.
That is why it will be a huge regret if Ardern lets this pass without bringing real lasting change, instead of BAU or minor fiddling. Likewise with Biden-Harris and the future of the US. I think the UK has passed this point and now faces a prolonged dark future.
“Throughout the border has been extremely tightly controlled, you still can’t get in unless you are an NZ resident or have a special wavier from the govt.”
This is true with most countries. There’s a big difference with NZ. All people who enter NZ are subject to a 14 day supervised quarantine (no honor system, no waivers). PCR tests are given on day 3 and day 12. If either test is positive, they are transferred to hospital and the 14 day quarantine clock starts over. This is necessary because people can be infectious for 3 days before and after testing negative. The point is to prevent the virus from being introduced into the population.
“My broad take is that the govt here has been much more concerned with showing that they are taking the pandemic seriously by taking highly visible (and highly disruptive) actions rather than highly effective ones.”
What were the results? Eradication. Which less visible and disruptive actions were more effective?
I realise eradication is a good thing, I’m enjoying it. What I want to make clear though is that control of peoples movement seems to be the only thing that has been effective in halting the spread in countries with Western culture, but in Eastern cultures they have, in general, had less stringent lockdowns but at the same time less Covid cases. NZ has had the most successful Covid response because it has had the most strict lockdown. The only effective answer the West seems to have is lockdown, the East however must be doing something differently. It would be very interesting to know what that difference is for sure.
Taiwan and Vietnam both had less disruptive actions than NZ and both were more effective. At least going by this index: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/covid-stringency-index
There is no single thing but one can identify some single things without which control is hopeless (except short-term in extreme lockdown like NZ and Australia).
1. Masks–everyone in public (and possibly within multifamily dwellings; something has to be limiting spread in these settings in east Asia). Masks won’t completely stop it but it cannot be emphasised too much how important they are to suppress transmission especially by the asymptomatic superspreaders. Some East Asians may have also indulged in some useless hygiene theatre (deep cleaning, road surface disinfection !) but the west has actually prioritised these almost useless and distracting activities over the single one that works, masks.
2. Contact tracing. Again, the biggest impact is on identifying asymptomatic superspreaders. Not only is contact tracing dysfunctional in many western jurisdictions or even where functional it is forever playing catchup, but I just read that in the UK it is almost entirely focussed on the symptomatic and on forward tracing, ie. it doesn’t actually identify asymptomatic superspreaders responsible for the clusters (and by definition it is the asymptomatic ones who do the most spreading). Also it is clear that many politicians don’t get it, and seem to believe just doing large-scale testing per se is enough, but of course it is who you test and complete testing around outbreaks and clusters that matters. Testing a million people a day is useless if it is the wrong people. This is beyond nuts and beyond mere incompetence, it is incomprehensible.
3. Isolation/quarantine of those identified by 2. until no longer infectious. Again, even where the west quarantines it is often ineffectual, probably especially for the asymptomatic (which those in charge don’t take seriously, it seems). But in addition we often don’t identify those most needing quarantine.
4. Crowd control, ie. limiting social situations that are superspreading events. In the west we seem incapable of controlling this. It is my contention that lockdown has inadvertently induced complacency about all these other measures, as if lockdown is some magic tool and when it is relaxed then we interpret it as the signal, the green light for BAU. We can blame politicians and high-level health bureaucrats for this irresponsibility, and the idiot concept that micro-targetting (districts, individual buildings, etc) and complicated rules about where and when to take precautions (eg. about mask wearing) is workable.
Americans also discount everything produced INSIDE their own country too! lol… Learned helplessness is our political M.O. in the USA.
P.S. Vietnam has done a good job combating the virus and is predicted to have 3% GDP growth this year, I read that in the NY Times I think.
Times article also praised Vietnam for smart and large investments in infrastructure and education.
Is Vietnam the Next ‘Asian Miracle’?
Given its size, population, and huge borders, China is probably the closest comparison to the EU or the US. But we’re not allowed to talk about how they’ve had minimal community spread for months.
Ah yes China and not being allowed to talk about things, like cultural genocide or democracy.
Please don’t tell me you’re one of those conspiracy theorists who thinks that millions are somehow still dying of covid in China.
No way is it millions. But that China is lying about the extent of corona there is hard to dispute. That said, it’s equally hard to dispute the observation that Chinese corona rates are within the East and Southeast Asian range, and not the Western range; Hongkongers would’ve noticed an outbreak in Shenzhen, for example, and the extent of lockdown required to suppress corona from European levels would’ve shown in various economic growth indicators.
My impression is that, when some certain German politicians say “we can’t do this”, they actually mean “we can’t be sure that this would not get shot down in the federal constitutional court.”
The courts have done a lot in Germany recently. Some of their judgments made sense as they picked apart bad laws or hastily written executive orders… Others… Not so much
Still can’t believe that when I type in “centralized quarantine” in Google, the top news article in the search result is the one Matt Yglesias wrote back in April! https://www.google.com/search?q=centralized+quarantine&rlz=1C1GCEU_enUS820US821&oq=centralized+quarantine&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l2j0i22i30l5.3694j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
I think there genuinely is a certain “slowness” to the German political system when it is democratic. It helped preserve many a tram network when that wasn’t the European trend, but it also delayed the building of a lot of much needed infrastructure…
Switzerland might have that even more. Go and read when the fIrst proposals for a Gotthard Base Tunnel were made…
In regards to Thailand and Nigeria both are under a flood of protests as we speak and have thrown any mask adherence out the window. The #ThailandProtest2020 has been mostly concentrated in Bangkok, but slowly spreading with the government issuing a state of emergency. In Nigeria, the now 1 week old #EndSARS protest has quickly escalated into a nationwide movement starting as a rally against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit which has terrorist citizens for decades, but now transitioning into a rally for good governance.
Word on the ground in both places is that “Corona can wait, we have more important issues to address”
Ironically Taiwan has also had a no-can-do attitude in response to some of the government’s initiatives, which turned out successful in the end. Most notable was when Taipei and eventually most of the country required residents to place garbage directly in garbage trucks- no leaving it on the street. You also had to buy special garbage bags. A lot of people didn’t believe Taiwanese people could go along with that, given the general disregard for the rules and littering that was endemic in the ’90’s, but it’s turned out to be a big success. Also, a lot of people questioned whether the MRT could convince everyone to line up, though that campaign has also largely turned out to be successful.
Here is an extract from a piece in today’s Guardian that reveals a big part of the problem. While this story concerns the French and they are notoriously harsh on their governments, nevertheless lack of trust in officialdom is common throughout the west. It has been fomented from the Right and relentlessly from the Murdoch media (which is why it is so much worse in the Anglosphere) and the early official responses to Covid-19 has reinforced this scenario.
This thing with the masks happened all over the world, ie. all over the rich western world. From all of the official health honchos, including the WHO and disappointingly also Fauci of NIAID (this week PBS-Newshour ran an old clip of him explicitly downrating the use of masks). To be fair the east Asians didn’t have the same shortage of masks because mask-wearing had been normalised there, especially since the earlier SARS, MERS, swine-flu and avian-flu outbreaks. But the simple short-term solution was to reuse masks which anyone with passing familiarity with this kind of respiratory virus knows can be done risk-free. But the OHS nazis hate such ‘off-label’ use or recommendations, and instead chose the unconscionable path of fabricating an unnecessary cover story and grotesquely over-emphasising minor stuff like handwashing and surface cleaning etc. This has had two huge effects that have proven almost irreversible. One is convincing the public to adopt the east Asian mask-wearing of proven efficacy in reducing the spread of the virus. The second is loss of trust in anything the government or their proxies try to tell them.
The mask point is interesting, but we’re seeing even bigger second-waving in Czechia and Slovakia, both of which were early adopters of mass masking.
Yes, but as the maxim goes, happy families are all happy in the same way while unhappy ones are unhappy each in their own way. I don’t understand why it has flared up again in Germany, or Austria (only 1,700 cases pd but higher per cap) which was one of the first Euros to adopt (mandatory?) mask wearing in public. Can we blame millennials and complacency? Watching too much American tv newscasts?
No idea about Austria, but in Germany, the shift happened around July, when the populists changed their tune from “corona is terrible and it’s immigrants’ fault” to “corona is no big deal, Merkel is a tyrant.” Bild went from favorably covering the lockdown of an entire building in Neukölln with a mostly immigrant population in late June to blowing the size of the denialist protests out of proportion at the beginning of August. I suspect the growth of the second wave elsewhere contributed as well, since the denialists here displayed QAnon iconography (which would also happen in France), and one Israeli immigrant here told me flat out “800 a day Germany-wide is nothing” in late July. With no political consensus to restore the restrictions, Germany waited too long, only beginning mini-lockdown procedures last week, with the courts striking many down as unconstitutional even when harsher restrictions passed without problem in March.
Mask wearing in public is not mandatory here. It’s mandatory on the trains, but a few people even show up to the station unmasked and only put the mask on as they get on the train. It’s mandatory at supermarkets, but not while sitting down at a restaurant or a bar, only while moving around. People dine indoors frequently and nobody stays outdoors because it’s cold, and even though the spring lockdown included a ban on restaurant dining both indoors and outdoors until the 15th of May, right now nobody thinks to restore this.
The two key distinguishing policy features of Asia from Europe remain strong: centralized quarantine, and surgical masks. Masks here seem pretty evenly split between surgical and cloth, and even though demand for surgical is up, supply isn’t and there’s no effort to increase production, unlike in Taiwan. And Israel effectively beat the first wave with voluntary centralized quarantine at corona hotels, with 30% compliance; in the second wave it did not have corona hotels, for reasons that can be summarized as “the prime minister stopped caring about literally anything than beating the rap around June.”
Austria is a failed state by design, what with all the Austro-fascist and Nazi-fascist Wiederbetätigung….
My understanding is that mask wearing became part of public health care practices after the 1918 pandemic in Asian countries but disappeared in Europe and the Americas as a recommended practice during flu season for whatever reasons. So a lot Western public health experts were really resistant to advocating mask wearing because they saw it as not really scientific.
I think Western public health “experts” have become dominated by managerialism over the past few decades. And just like the old maxim about those who can, do, while those who can’t, teach, there is a strong selection for a particular type in those positions. One feature is an ingrained reluctance to reverse course or change advice, ie. to ever admit error.
I’m not totally unsympathetic, eg. one could see the dilemma those WHO officials were grappling with, and re China. But the use of masks is actually not the least controversial, or where it was raised as ‘unproven’ etc those people shouldn’t be in the job. As bad was the rationalisation that not enough masks were available, or that general use by the public would deprive the health workers of them. And over-selling the almost pointless surface cleaning etc when anyone who is familiar with these respiratory diseases knows the vast majority of transmission is via the air not via fomites (surfaces).
But East Asia is far more managerial than anything in the West, especially in the original sense of managerialism as elevating a class of middle and senior corporate managers to power and prestige (whereas the Anglosphere emphatically doesn’t do that, it has shareholder capitalism rather than managerial capitalism).
The surface cleaning bit is also part of the Taipei playbook for dealing with corona, even though, yes, it would later be proven less useful, but by then Taiwan had already controlled the virus.
I think the teaching people mentioned by Michael are not managers but consultants whose primary task is selling themselves.
Culture may or may not explain differences between fighting the pandemic but politics did. The highly polarized nature of American politics, combined with a long resistance to state action/intervention among many Americans, made being anti-intervention when it came to COVID-19 an attractive political proposition for nearly every Republican politician. Boris Johnson quickly changed stances on COVID-19 once he got it. Donald Trump and other Republicans did not. These perverse incentives did not exist in any other country. The complicated federal system in the United States both helped and hurt in this situation. It made it possible for Democratic dominated states to take COVID-19 more seriously but they lacked the means of making the lockdown more palatable once the original COVID-19 stimulus ran out. Meanwhile, Republican dominated states did a half-hearted lockdown but not really.
Brazil has had a similar incentive wrt bolsonaro and his allies, which is why it has the third highest amount of cases and second highest amount of deaths in the world from COVID. Rio de Janeiro state managed to get relatively good numbers by Brazilian standards (so still terrible) despite being in a huge long-term budget crisis, the governor getting unanimously impeached for stealing hospital money, and its biggest neighbour completely burying its head in the sand.
I think this is a very good point. In Taiwan people expect the government to materially help them, if that doesn’t happen in four years then even ideological allies will jump ship. Libertarianism is unheard of even among people who hate regulations and taxes. There is no such expectation in the US, even among liberals, who are happy with bare minimum, performative competence. I’m guessing most of East Asia is similar to Taiwan in this regard. I would have thought Europe would be as well, until covid came along.
South Korea and Taiwan are both way more politically polarized than Germany or even France…
Somehow I’m guessing that their opposition parties don’t have the science denying edge that the Republicans have. I’m also guessing that they aren’t entirely opposed to government intervention into the economy and welfare state measures to help people get through the pandemic materially.
I’m still trying to understand if the Japanese government is a positive or a negative factor in the relatively positive outcome that is observed.
At least people are protecting themselves and did not go to vacation this summer so at least the understanding by the population of what needs to be done is clear, even with no law to enforce it.
I think there’s good contact tracing there?
Probably contact tracing is good, though they repeatedly said it was despite working with paper and faxes following unclear instructions.
I think it means people in the administration are competent and able to act in various unforseen and degraded conditions, which is a good thing.
It seems to me this is the opposite of the US, where similar shocks (this time COVID but hurricanes and others before) make everything unravel.
Probably what can be learnt from Japan is not the leadership but how the organizations are built and maintained, recruiting and training the right people and so on.
Factually it is hard to tell. But the Japanese people are not impressed by the actions of Abe’s government. Approval rating had plunged, until Abe resigned and Suga became the Prime Minister.
Is East Asia really handling this so intelligently? South Korea and Japan are going through a never-ending epidemic just like Europe is, when with their rich mature disciplined mask-wearing populations it would be easy to eradicate the virus just like New Zealand or Taiwan have.
Taiwan is unique case- they got a timely handle on the virus due to unfiltered intelligence of the real situation thanks to close business and family contacts with the Wuhan region, and were able to get movement restrictions imposed without regards to angering China. The national government in Japan was early on worried about angering China in light of the planned visit of Xi. Also, in Japan constitutional restrictions prohibit the kind of strict lockdowns and penalties found in other nations, so despite the general compliance with science-based preventative measures, you are going to get segments of the population (youth, nightlife pleasure seekers) who will do as they please.
But there was never a lockdown in Taiwan or South Korea either…
There was a lockdown in Daegu.
Taiwan, IIRC, managed to stop all cases at the border and never had community spread, making a lockdown unnecessary. Almost no other country was lucky enough to have started so well.
Taiwan had some cases come through. Someone who returned from China infected a taxi driver in late January, both died. Also at least one of the infected cruise ships stopped at Keelung and the passengers traveled all over Taipei before it was discovered there was an outbreak on the ship. Contact tracing was likely helpful in preventing Covid’s spread before the border was shut.
South Korea’s per capita infection rate at this point is 2 orders of magnitude less than the EU’s, so yes.
South Korea’s infection rates is infinite orders of magnitude worse than New Zealand’s. Doesn’t that make it a failure? New Zealand’s economy can fully recover from now on, while South Korea for months has chosen to remain somewhat hobbled. How is that a success?
17 Oct 2020.
I was speaking of current infections. NZ: zero. SK: more than zero.
Fate has intervened to point up the folly of using non-averaged numbers like that: there has been a case in NZ in the last 24 hours!
The thing is that Korea is performing almost as well as NZ, except of course it hasn’t totally closed its economy. Ardern will need her stratospheric popularity (and to share the pain with the Greens) because her next term of office is going to be pretty horrible. It also demonstrates that an eradication strategy is effectively impossible in today’s globalised world. Over the weekend the travel bubble between A and NZ began operating but it’s already created political heat (Kiwis arriving elsewhere then moving to Melbourne; I’m not sure what anyone was expecting). Other than being a tiny population off on an island isolated in the vast southern Pacific ocean, NZ is not a model for anyone, including itself if it wishes life to return its smashed economy to anything approaching normal. South Korea, or Taiwan, HK, Singapore, Japan are fair models.
That’s a pretty stupid take, frankly. South Korea has to deal with social distancing, some jobs closed, perpetual stress and worry, perpetual masks, and all the other consequences of a dangerous asymptomatic virus circulating. New Zealand has everything open and back to normal – no restrictions, no worries – except foreign travel. That’s a huge difference economically and in quality of life.
“… except foreign travel.”.
Well, that tourism sector accounts for one in ten NZ jobs (probably an underestimate because 10% of Kiwis live in Australia and their return trips home are an econo-boom for NZ and reason for the ‘travel bubble’ with Australia just instituted last week). The fact is that NZ’s economy is devastated and recovery is going to be difficult because of its dependence on tourism and foreign trade (some 50+% is agricultural and quite a bit is dependent on commercial pax flights because most freight goes in their holds). And the whole point is that Korea never closed down its economy while NZ did. Do you have data on relative economic impact? I’d be very surprised if Korea’s was worse than NZ’s especially over the 8 months of this covid year so far.
Unfortunately NZ is often neglected in global analyses but Taiwan is least affected (minus 0.3%) while number 2 is S. Korea at minus 3% (link below, for Q2 2020). NZ is not on that graph but elsewhere I’ve see estimates of between minus 5% to minus 15% which is what one expects for one of the world’s harshest lockdowns and near-total global isolation.
The real question is can NZ recover closer to normality without covid flareups; this is not a question for Korea as they have managed all along. Korea is predicted to have positive growth in the next year but I doubt NZ will.
I kind of hate that second quarter GDP statistic. Corona didn’t end in June, despite what Euro-land thinks.
? I assumed it is simply that Q3 only just finished and the data isn’t in yet. I don’t think we’ll know the full story until this time next year or even the year after that.
I made a small error in that post, in that the -0.3% figure for Taiwan was for Q1; it was -0.6% for Q2.
Yeah, but there are already projections for 2020, e.g. the OECD economic outlook that I cited in the post.
I barely believe reported historical data let alone projections. By economists!
No one is claiming that masks can eradicate the virus, but that it can suppress it sufficiently that a reasonably competent test-and-trace operation can contain the remaining low-level breakouts.
Home-made cloth masks are perfectly fine (better when considering they can be recycled endlessly by washing) if they are made according to approved templates (which include three layers of different materials). Actually, in addition to the washability, I think cloth masks are better than the average (green paper) surgical masks which I reckon are not worn correctly by about 50% of the people I see wearing them. There is also evidence that masks reduce the severity of infection that escapes the masking, probably by a combination of reduce viral dose and upper respiratory tract rather than deep (lung) infection.
There was a fairly good review in Nature last week:
Note that this is w.r.t. protection of the wearer, but the biggest impact of widespread mask wearing is prevention of transmission by the infected, especially asymptomatic super-spreaders.
I’m not really sure we should discount hard to qualify things like cultural differences or politics either. Culture is very hard to qualify and quantify but reducing everything to improper policy isn’t that helpful either. The pandemic surpassing politics that would work in a medium seize island country with five million people, and not many demographic groups prone to ignore and resist state orders like Evangelical Christians or Ultra-Orthodox Jews, is going to be different a continental spanning country with 330 million people and lots of demographic groups prone to be suspicious of state orders for different reasons. Saying that everything can be treated as a matter of proper or improper policy treats people as machines when they aren’t. Likewise, even the most serious politicians in the United States seemed reluctant to go to the level of Australian politicians and do things like shut down a kid’s birthday party because two public health workers noticed an unusually large KFC order on a lunch break.
Fighting a pandemic is no fun and goes against the fact that most humans are social creatures that like being around other humans. When dealing with morale boasting on the home front during war, you at least have the fact that working together on the neighborhood victory garden or come out, meet celebrities, and buy bonds is much more social than stay at home and watch YouTube for an indefinite period of time. That a significant number of people are going to light up because the pandemic is their chance to remake human society doesn’t help. More than a few people I know from political blogs beamed at the opportunity to get rid of people’s selfish desires in their opinion.
South Korea has Evangelical churches that border on cults, deny the virus, and are connected to the right-wing mainstream newspapers.
The broader problem with the “muh culture” line is that exactly zero of the people who say that follow it with “and therefore we must embark on a Kemalist process of erasing our failed culture and adopting a more successful culture.”
Aren’t those Korean cults relatively minor affairs?
Whereas look to the US where Evangelicals have hijacked the presidency and the latest nominee for SCOTUS is practically a handmaiden, or the mistress of handmaidens (I’d bet she has a small workforce to run that 9-member family …). She even looks scarily like Nicole Kidman’s Stepford wife …
The last Korean president got impeached due to an influence peddling scheme by her top aide, who was a daughter of a cult leader: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Park_Geun-hye#Choi_Soon-sil_scandal_and_impeachment
The biggest Megachurches by congregation are nearly all South Korean….
That can be true while total Evangelicals being tiny fraction of the population. The feature of mega-churches is that they aggregate their congregations from all over a city into one or a few sites. Seoul being bigger than any US city it makes sense that its mega-churches are huge.
Most of our would be Kemalists are Evangelicals and other members of the American hard right like the Federalist society. I don’t think there is a big appetite for Kemalist reform among American liberals. We might fantasize about doing the Evangelicals in but we don’t like the details of what that would involve. Also, the Meiji oligarchs were more successful than Kemal Ataturk.
“Doing the Evangelicals in” – are you thinking of Kemalism as the Armenian Holocaust or something? Because that happened under the Young Turks, in the middle of WW1, before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Kemal.
The Meiji process is in on the same spectrum as Kemalism, to be honest. It didn’t have the forced secularization component, because East Asia doesn’t work that way, but it had the aspect of importing foreign learning on the grounds that the Western was more developed than the local, and even importing Western practices like clothing styles. The Ginza Line was built as imitation of Western subways, IIRC the London Underground; it took until the 1950s and 60s for the Japanese way of building rapid transit (which I will blog about soon, I promise) to diverge from its Western origins.
The commonality here is that despite the MTGA/MJGA rhetoric, these processes were the exact opposite of MAGA, which looks to restore past greatness directly. In the Middle East the equivalent of that would be Islamism, promising to make the Arab world (or individual states like Egypt) great again by rejecting modern Western values and restoring imagined traditional ones. Somewhere in the middle you have various Arab nationalist regimes like Egypt’s or Ba’athism, which engage in constant compromising with various local (inc. religious) interests instead of replacing them with the state and with large corporations.
If the problem is that Western culture is too suspicious of state power to accept measures like centralized quarantine, then isn’t that (pretty much by definition) an issue that cannot be fixed by Kemalist top-down measures?
The culture argument has some merit in specific cases (e.g. if you’re a local politician in Wyoming), but I think over all policy is more relevant.
First, most of the US went along with the lockdown in the beginning, so it seems most Americans are fine with accepting limits to their freedom if their leaders are clear about why it’s necessary. The epidemic could have been controlled with less onerous measures implemented as the lockdown eased but the Republicans decided to make a political issue of it, leading to the uncontrolled spread we have now.
Second, as Alon pointed out South Korea has plenty of groups that could (and in fact have) worked against the government’s anti-covid measures, but this hasn’t lead to a US-scale epidemic. In Taiwan as well there are plenty of religious, ethnic, and political minorities with the inclination to oppose the government, and one pro-China temple in fact almost went ahead with their massive annual pilgrimage in the spring until they finally relented to government- and popular- pressure.
Of course in the US the difference is that the national governing party is undermining anti-covid measures, but even then Democrat-led states could do a lot more to bring anti-mask groups into line. New York’s state and city government could force the police to wear masks and enforce mask wearing, distancing, and contact tracing- Cuomo certainly has the political capital and the power to do so, and the vast majority of New Yorkers would support him. That he does not is not the inevitable result of American culture or diversity, it’s just a continuation of the political pattern of conservatives turning selfishness into a political cause while “liberal” politicians coddle them. I don’t think Cuomo and de Blasio could stop the epidemic in New York at this point, but if they got serious and worked with surrounding states we might be able to get it down to Australia’s level instead of worrying about a second wave.
On a general level, even if we can’t “prove” policy is the key factor, that is no excuse not to attempt it. The costs of a policy failing are low, but the costs of doing nothing are even higher.