By Jim Newton
COVID-19 is no different in Taiwan than in the United States. It infects people the same way and causes the same symptoms, regardless of climate or geography. Taiwan and the United States are modern, industrialized democracies with big cities and rural areas. The United States has recorded some 30 million cases of COVID-19, while Taiwan has had about 1,000. Why? Why has a single disease been so devastating in some places and so contained in others?
That is the question that has occupied the world for the past year, and it is one that Peter Baldwin, PhD, a UCLA history professor with experience in comparative politics and epidemic research, set out to answer. It is the subject of his new book: Fighting the First Wave (Cambridge University Press).
It is a grand and brightly written account of a bleak and confusing epoch, sweeping across the travails of Asia and Europe, the United States, Latin America and Africa. It finds and reveals stories of intelligent heroism alongside hubris and stupidity. It may help guide the remaining stages of this battle and could inform future responses to the pandemics that await.
The first step in Dr. Baldwin’s analysis is the observation that COVID-19 represented a common threat to people and nations around the world — that while governments responded differently to it, the underlying virus was indifferent to the societies across which it stampeded. That suggested the opportunity for a unified scientific response, and to a large degree, the scientific community has responded with force and purpose. As Dr. Baldwin writes: “Scientific cooperation was immediate, prolific and worldwide,” a response he describes as “one of the epidemic’s few silver linings.”
The same cannot be said of the international political response. It was, as Dr. Baldwin illuminates, uneven, contradictory and, all too often, idiotic. Some countries sought guidance from scientists and scientific knowledge; others shunned both. Some countries headed down a path, only to reconsider or capitulate to contrary voices. Casualties steadily mounted.
But they mounted unevenly. The lessons of the international response would be simple if they followed conventional political lines, if all democracies did well and all command economies faltered — or the other way around. That is quite decidedly not the experience Dr. Baldwin documents.
Indeed, what is most striking about the successful and failed countries in the fight against COVID-19 is that the camps crossed the usual lines. New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and China have been among the countries to mount the most successful public-health responses. Those nations include two Western-style democracies, two more regimented democracies and the world’s largest autocracy. Failures include Brazil, the United States and Sweden, two federal republics then under the leadership of populist presidents and one of the world’s leading social-democratic democracies, a darling of progressives.
Bottom line: Democracies were not all successful, nor did all fail. Some autocracies did well, others did not. Some democracies may have envied the power that autocracies had to clamp down on movement — China showed no qualms about locking people into their homes — and some authoritarian leaders no doubt pined for the cooperation that some democracies were able to enlist from their citizens, at least for a time.
In the final analysis — or, at least, the final analysis so far — countries and states that have fared best are those that enjoy one of two relationships with their populations: Either they enjoy the public’s trust or they have power over their people. New Zealand and Australia command the confidence of their citizens (and have the benefit of being isolated island nations) and were able to impose strict measures without alienating the public. China imposed some of the world’s most draconian restrictions, in part because its power over its citizens makes it relatively immune to backlash. South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore blended substantial authority with cooperative citizenries.
At the other end of the scale, sadly, is the United States, where, Dr. Baldwin writes, President Donald Trump was unwilling to mobilize his power and unable to muster trust. Instead, he and his government wobbled, first downplaying the threat, then declaring a national emergency but still declining to use the federal authority at his disposal to require stringent health measures, or even so much as to strongly encourage wearing masks. The result is that this country registered one of the world’s most shameful public-health responses.
Of special note in all of this is Sweden, which boldly — stupidly, some would say — struck out on its own, pursuing herd immunity in defiance of almost all scientific guidance and singularly outside its community of Scandinavian neighbors. As Dr. Baldwin recounts, Sweden combined hubris with confusion to produce a policy that glaringly stood out. The government trusted its citizens to behave responsibly but assumed that they would not respond well to lockdowns. That, Dr. Baldwin points out, left Sweden straddling a contradiction: “The Swedes could not be locked down because depriving them of their freedoms was asking too much. But at the same time, the Swedes were trained and conditioned to do the right thing without being compelled. So which was it: Could the government trust the Swedes to act correctly, or could it not rely on them to endure lockdown?”
Sweden opted for allowing its citizens to fend for themselves and hoped that herd immunity would stave off disaster, if not in the first wave then at least in the second. That won the social-democratic state admirers in strange places — “Sweden became the pet of conservatives globally,” Dr. Baldwin writes, but by the summer of 2020, it was lumped in among such unlikely cohorts as Armenia, North Macedonia and Azerbaijan as the nations with the most alarming infection rates. The resurgence of the virus in the fall hit Sweden hard again — still no herd immunity — to the point that its mortality rates have exceeded those in Norway and Finland by 10 times.
Sweden’s only real rival in failure has been the United States. The difference is that the United States’ failure was of confusion, poor leadership and division; Sweden’s was by design.
Dr. Baldwin’s account of the public-health response to COVID-19 ends before this newest phase, the vaccine rollout and its global impact on the virus’ spread. Interviewed as vaccines became more widely available in the United States, he noted the curiously different alignment of nations in that phase of the pandemic. After their conspicuous failures to mount effective public-health responses, the United States and Britain have, by contrast, led the way in vaccine development and distribution — bringing welcome, if belated, relief to the citizens of those countries. “The biomedical solution,” Dr. Baldwin says, speaking from Britain, where he had been since December, “allows you to sidestep the public-health response.”
The final chapters of the world’s confrontation with COVID-19 are still being written, and Dr. Baldwin is standing by. In the meantime, Fighting the First Wave is the most complete and useful account of the most important subject on earth.
Jim Newton is editor-in-chief of Blueprint magazine in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Los Angeles Times.