What explains why some countries have handled the covid-19 pandemic well and others have done poorly? It’s a complicated question, but if we look at the place that has arguably had the greatest success, the answer is failure.
Taiwan’s greatest asset turns out to be its failed response to a pandemic in 2003, SARS, which taught it many important lessons. SARS was a respiratory virus, less contagious than covid-19 but more deadly. SARS also came out of China, where authorities bungled the initial response and withheld information from the outside world. The Taiwanese were caught unprepared and made several mistakes. In the aftermath, they totally overhauled their pandemic preparedness procedures. They ensured they had adequate supplies of equipment on hand. They made plans to act early, smartly and aggressively.
Many Asia-Pacific countries have succeeded against covid-19 — South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia. All were hit by SARS or witnessed its economic damage, and they learned from the experience. The only non-Asian country with a SARS outbreak was Canada, and it, too, changed its procedures after 2003 and took precautions. Even China learned a great deal from its disastrous SARS response, and, despite early stumbles this time, Beijing has managed to crush covid-19 so completely that the disease has virtually disappeared from the country where it began. SARS doesn’t explain the success of every country that has handled covid-19 well, but it reveals an important aspect of the story.
Consider, on the other hand, countries that have handled covid-19 badly. Anthropologist Martha Lincoln, writing in Nature, points out that several of these countries tend to think of themselves as exceptional in some way. She notes that the United States, Britain, Brazil and Chile all have strong national narratives that see themselves as separate, distinct and better than others. The United States is notorious for this attitude, but that is, after all, also the motivation behind Britain’s desire to leave the European Union. Brazil, meanwhile, believes it enjoys good fortune because “God is Brazilian,” and Chile is smug about being the region’s economic superstar.
That sense of being special makes a country unlikely to adopt the standard attitude of any business when confronting a challenge — to look for best practices. Bill Gates recently wrote that he has always approached problem-solving by starting with two fundamental questions: “Who has dealt with this problem well? And what can we learn from them?” He suggests that we apply the same philosophy to the pandemic.
And yet the United States is remarkably uninterested in how other countries approach similar challenges. Dozens of advanced countries have health-care systems that deliver better results at half the cost of America’s. Most have a fraction of our homicide rates. Many much poorer countries have better infrastructure, which they build at far lower cost. They ensure that money does not dominate their elections. Not only do we not learn from them, we barely bother to look.
In an essay in Foreign Affairs, Jeremy Konyndyk argues that “American exceptionalism — the notion that the United States is unique among nations and that the American way is invariably the best — has blinded the country’s leaders (and many of its citizens) to potentially lifesaving lessons from other countries.” He quotes the eminent U.S. historian Eric Foner, who once explained that American exceptionalism translates into “hubris and closed-mindedness, and . . . ignorance about the rest of the world. Since the United States is so exceptional, there is no point in learning about other societies.” Konyndyk concludes: “That mentality is now costing American lives.” I fear he may be right.