One of the crucial placing issues in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic is simply how dramatically totally different the responses have been from nation to nation. In early 2020, when little was recognized in regards to the virus, this distinction was unsurprising. At present, with tens of hundreds of analysis articles and instances of finest observe to be taught from, one would anticipate to see extra convergence.
And but some international locations proceed to withstand widespread methods, equivalent to lockdowns, and demand on going their very own manner – with various levels of success.
Two such international locations are Sweden and Japan, which in 2020 have cast a distinct path to their neighbours on coronavirus and attributed their early successes to the assumed benefits of an inherent nationwide character. However right now, each appear to be paying the value.
Lands with out lockdown
One issue that options in each the Japanese and Swedish responses is that of nationwide exceptionalism. By exceptionalism I imply the understanding amongst a inhabitants that “we” will not be solely distinct from the remainder, however not directly additionally superior.
Leaders in each international locations have emphasised that their constitutions stop violations of civil liberties, equivalent to lockdowns and fines. As an alternative, each governments have based mostly their methods on voluntarism, self-responsibility, and maybe most significantly, the distinctive nature of their populations.
Sweden, famously, has left bars, eating places and gymnasiums open all through the pandemic, in addition to not requiring masks in any public settings. The truth is, the official place in Sweden continues to be that masks could do extra to extend the unfold of COVID-19, somewhat than scale back it. This view was frequent in lots of European international locations at the beginning of the pandemic, however different governments shortly modified their minds and mandated mask-wearing in public locations.
Like Sweden, Japan took the “no lockdown” route and avoided imposing obligatory restrictions – although it closed its borders earlier this yr. Not like Sweden, nonetheless, nearly everybody in Japan voluntarily wears a masks, and the federal government engages in aggressive contact-tracing.
Nonetheless, in July, Japan carried out a home tourism marketing campaign, “Go To Journey”, to encourage individuals to spend cash and increase the financial system. It’s now feared that this marketing campaign, which noticed the federal government subsidise individuals’s home vacationer journeys, could possibly be liable for driving the nation’s third wave.
Mindo and nihonjinron in Japan
Japanese exceptionalism was evident within the rhetoric used to elucidate the nation’s relative success in mitigating each the primary and second waves. In April, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was fast to hail the success of the Japan mannequin, which succeeded “in a characteristically Japanese manner”.
Deputy Prime Minister Taro Asō was extra explicitly nationalist: his rationalization was that Japan’s mindo was larger than the remainder. Mindo, loosely translated as “high quality of individuals”, is related to Japan’s imperial period, when the Japanese noticed themselves standing atop a civilizational hierarchy of Asian individuals. This harks again to the discourse on Japanese exceptionalism, nihonjinron, which seeks to account for Japan’s uniqueness. All international locations are distinctive, so it goes, however Japan is uniquely distinctive – and just a little superior too.
The suitable-wing nationalist day by day newspaper Sankei Shimbun even went as far to quote Japanese Shinto rituals and “the expertise and knowledge of our ancestors” as explaining Japan’s success.
Exceptionalism within the Japanese case was of the actual type: Japan succeeded due to the individuality of Japanese tradition and cleanliness, the Japanese mannequin method wouldn’t work in different international locations. Nevertheless, exceptionalism and hubris are carefully associated, and the third wave engulfing Japan right now below new prime minister Yoshihide Suga is proving extra devastating than the primary two.
Folkvett in Sweden
In Sweden, somewhat than implement any obligatory restrictions, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven known as on the populace to make use of their folkvett – a mix of excellent manners, morality, and customary sense that’s presupposed to be innate to all good Swedes – to comply with the voluntary suggestions.
Johan Giescke, Tegnell’s mentor, shut confidant, and marketing consultant adviser for the Swedish Public Well being Authority, was equally outspoken: “Sweden is true” and “all the opposite international locations are incorrect”. Each Tegnell and Giesecke declared that COVID-19 was no extra harmful than a seasonal flu, and the Public Well being Authority declared – incorrectly – in April, Might, and July, that Stockholm was on the verge of herd immunity.
The Swedish media adopted go well with and Swedes have been inspired to be “proud to stay in Sweden”, and never dwelling below the populist and draconian responses to be present in the remainder of Europe. To query the technique was to query science and rationality itself.
After 22 distinguished scientists printed an article raised considerations in regards to the Swedish method, they have been ridiculed within the media. Columnists and critics equivalent to Ida Östenberg, Victor Malm and Alex Schulman launched private assaults, with Schulman labelling them a part of the tinfoil hat brigade. Even considered one of Sweden’s most well-known and trusted science communicator, Agnes Wold, impugned their motives.
Because the dying toll elevated into June, after the remainder of Europe (and Japan) had regained management, solely the far-right Sweden Democrats dared to criticise Tegnell or the Swedish Public Well being Authority.
In late July, the day by day deaths in Sweden lastly reached single digits. This prompted much less of a sigh of aid and extra of a collective pat on the again. The Swedish technique was appropriate, the Swedish technique is being praised overseas. Certainly, it appeared that nearly any beneficial protection of the Swedish technique within the worldwide press was newsworthy, as for instance when British tabloid the Solar carried an article praising Sweden it was extensively and approvingly reported on within the Swedish media.
Thus, Swedish exceptionalism was paradoxical: on one hand, it was based mostly on the inherent folkvett of Swedes. On the opposite, Sweden very a lot touted the “Swedish technique” as the right scientific mannequin from which all different states would ultimately be taught.
The issue for each Sweden and Japan right now is exceptionalist inertia. Different states have been fast to vary tack in tandem with developments within the pandemic and the science explaining it. Even because the third wave threatens to spiral uncontrolled, the Japanese authorities has not cancelled “Go To Journey”, merely suspending it between December 28 and January 11.
In the meantime, Swedish bars, eating places and gymnasiums stay open because the day by day dying toll continues to rise, although a new ballot within the Dagens Nyhete newspaper exhibits belief in Tegnell is decrease than ever amongst Swedes.
There may be in fact extra to the COVID-19 story than nationwide exceptionalism, and thus far Japan has fared much better than Sweden and lots of different international locations in containing its epidemic.
Nonetheless, each instances counsel that associating the success (and by extension, failure) of a public well being response with an enchantment to an distinctive nationwide character could be harmful. It could possibly make studying from others much less seemingly, and make altering course, even within the face of overwhelming proof, a painful – maybe inconceivable – course of.