Tim Colebatch wrote an interesting article “There is an Alternative to Lockdowns” for Inside Story. The article compares the performance of various countries in their handling of the corona virus pandemic. Tim’s assessment is that the outstanding performer has been Taiwan. It has been the world’s most successful country in fighting the virus. In a land with almost as many people as Australia, only six people have died, and 426 have been infected. This has been achieved without the economic and social collateral damage that has been a feature of the Australian approach.
This post looks at what Tim has reported and asks whether Australia should change the way it is dealing with the epidemic.
From Tim Colebatch: The Taiwanese success “wasn’t by lockdowns. Large gatherings are banned, but Taiwan has remained open for business: you can go to work, school or university, go shopping, go to a restaurant with your friends. But you will have to wear a face mask in public, obey social distancing rules, and constantly have your temperature checked and your hands sprayed. If you’re ordered to self-quarantine, the government will phone you frequently to check that you don’t leave home.”
Tim also gave the following background on the Taiwanese response: “Taiwan had been a victim of the SARS epidemic in 2002–03, when seventy-three Taiwanese died partly because China denied it crucial information. This time it was first off the mark.
On 31 December, the same day that China finally notified the WHO of an outbreak of respiratory disease in Wuhan, Taiwan imposed health checks on everyone arriving from Wuhan. These were gradually widened, and after China allowed a team of Taiwanese doctors to visit Wuhan in mid January, their grim report led Taiwan to embark on its strategy of test, trace and quarantine.
Back in January, when Chinese scouts started buying up Australia’s supplies of medical equipment, Taiwan banned the export of face masks — and got its industries to produce them, as they are now doing at the rate of some millions a day, along with other essential medical supplies and protective equipment. It moves fast when it needs to.
Those ordered to self-quarantine receive a daily allowance of roughly A$45, and are brought food and other necessities by their village leader. It helps that medical care is cheap and widespread, and that Taiwan is a Confucian society where people tend to obey government orders (unlike Italy, say).
Australia has also been a world leader in dealing with the virus and it is difficult to be making comparisons between a very small densely populated island with a very different economy to Australia. However, it is worth noting that, in the case of Australia, that the collateral economic damage is very significant: New data suggests that 780,000 people had lost their jobs by April 4, just days after the current COVID-19 business and social restrictions were introduced on March 30. Those restrictions shut thousands of services venues such as pubs, clubs, gyms, cinemas, beauty salons and many other businesses, while Australians were required to stay at home unless shopping for essentials, receiving medical care, exercising, going to work or an educational facility. In addition, total wages were down by 6.7 per cent over the three-week period, again with a 5.1 per cent decrease in pay packets during the week ending April 4. Even worse, the Grattan Institution is now saying (19 April 2020) “Our estimate is that between a sixth and a quarter of Australia’s workforce is likely to be out of work because of the COVID-19 shutdown and social distancing.”
In addition, COVID lockdowns have human costs as well as benefits. Think, for example of domestic violence, suicide rates and unemployment and lockdown driven depression. The following shows the impact of Australian government decisions on a variety of businesses.
Most of these potential job losses arise directly or indirectly because of problems conforming with distancing rules with most of the rest coming from restrictions on travel.
It is certainly worth asking whether Australia could avoid most of the collateral damage caused by its coronovirus control policies by adapting some of Taiwan’s approach. However, we certainly need a better understanding of what is really making a difference in Taiwan and understand things like how important the quality and re-usability of face masks are. (Do they have to be health worker standard or could washable be sufficient to make a real difference?)
At the same time we should be looking closely at specific jobs and ask ourselves what could be done to avoid the need for these job losses.