Europe’s resurgent COVID-19 outbreak makes it obvious – if it wasn’t already – that the novel coronavirus can be repressed but cannot be contained without systems that most Western societies are unprepared to adopt or rules their citizens are increasingly reluctant to follow.
All summer, Europeans shook their heads as Americans grappled with a high rate of infections and a death rate monotonously close to 1,000 per day. This level was far above the rates most of the Continent achieved after stringent spring lockdowns brought the outbreak under control over there.
But those same Europeans then clambered onto ferries and trains, resumed their late-night socializing at cafes, and jammed the beaches and parks. Tourism-dependent economies were desperate for local business without their usual patronage from unwelcome Americans (Continental Europe’s borders remain closed to us), cautious Canadians, and the New Zealanders, Australians and Asians for whom international travel means mandatory two-week quarantines upon return. Chinese tourists, who had become a major part of the industry’s base, could hardly travel internationally at all.
But all that local movement and socializing had consequences. Cases and hospitalizations are surging again in places hit hard last spring, including the United Kingdom, Spain, France and Italy. New lockdowns, curfews and other strictures have followed. But this time, substantial segments of the citizenry are resisting. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that fines for violating rules for local curfews, lockdowns and quarantines are on the rise in Europe. Some local and regional governments, including Madrid’s, have joined residents in resisting tighter restrictions.
All of the West – not just America – is caught in a vicious cycle. Disruptive and job-killing restrictions on business and education are followed by easing. Easing is followed by upswings in infections and casualties. Those upswings are followed by renewed restrictions. The situation is different in the developing world, where prolonged restrictions are economically impractical for much of the population. And it is different in the western Pacific region, where important differences in geography, economy and culture have combined to produce a more robust response to the pandemic.
Countries like Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore are islands. Once they bring the virus under control, these countries have practical ways to minimize the reintroduction of infection. This is also true of South Korea, whose hermetically sealed northern border makes it functionally an island. And it is true for much of China except along the Russian border, where reinfection was, indeed, a problem, especially earlier in the year.
Geography alone would not have protected these places, though. Their economies rely more heavily on producing goods and materials that can be safely exported. Their governments have been willing to trace potentially exposed individuals, isolate them, test them, and identify and trace their contacts to a degree largely absent in Europe and North America. South Korea uses cellphone data to track exposed individuals; China issues each individual a QR code denoting their status. Such approaches automate a tracing process that is otherwise impractically labor-intensive.
We could have implemented similar systems months ago. We didn’t, largely because of privacy concerns that verge on the nonsensical. There is nothing private about walking into a cafe, a pharmacy or a supermarket. If you want to attend a mass gathering, whether it is a street protest, a football game (now that some fans are admitted) or a political rally, there is no legitimate privacy concern. Even if you attend an underground club or some other clandestine activity, your privacy concerns are outweighed by society’s interest in keeping everyone safe enough to engage in normal daily activity. As Teo Yik-Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, told The Wall Street Journal, “Independent actions will have consequences on the health of others.”
This is a virus that travels faster and farther than Kansas City Chiefs Quarterback Patrick Mahomes II once it escapes containment. It deserves similar respect and preparation from those hoping to slow it down.
As I sit in my own legally mandated quarantine in New York, I find it worth noting how many Westerners scoff at such requirements. I was the apparent exception to the rule when I voluntarily submitted New York’s tracking form before driving into the state from Florida, thus subjecting myself to a quarantine order. In this country and others, individuals who are supposed to be in quarantine due to known or potential exposure – or even a positive COVID-19 test – routinely flout the requirements and expose those around them. A study from King’s College London, reported by The Wall Street Journal, found that around 75% of study participants left their homes at least once during a mandatory quarantine period.
Some Pacific nations have tried to take this option away by quarantining entire apartment blocks or housing complexes, or by placing new arrivals and others in government-supervised isolation in hotels and dormitories. This is not a perfect system either. Australia’s Victoria state had to go into lockdown this summer after an outbreak that was linked to claims of fraternization, sexual and otherwise, among residents and guards at a quarantine hotel in Melbourne.
But there is no doubt that quarantine and testing compliance is far higher on the far side of the Pacific. China tested an entire city of 9 million after an outbreak that numbered in the hundreds. And of course, China immobilized some 60 million people in Hubei province at the start of the pandemic. The move was not quick enough to stop the disease’s spread around the world. But it was effective enough that the origin city of Wuhan is now a domestic tourist destination.
When the pandemic is over, there will be a lot of policy post-mortems in the West, just as there were in Asia after SARS and MERS created outbreak scares that proved less virulent than SARS-CoV-2. Maybe we will remind ourselves that our individual liberties, which we rightly cherish, come with a social contract to follow the rules that we democratically adopt.
As I wrote in this space yesterday, pilots are trained to stay within the system designed to keep everyone safe. The western Pacific nations had better systems, and they stayed within them. That is why they are not locking down the way Europe is doing once again.