Most people are familiar with the example of Sweden as a country that bucked the lockdown fad in response to the threat of COVID-19. But fewer people seem to be talking about the example of Japan. How Japan succeeded in mitigating widespread fatalities might not be 100% clear yet, but what is clear is that a lockdown is not one of the ingredients, because Japan never issued one.
Japan is home to the largest city in the world, and subways are a way of life in Tokyo. Yet at 7 deaths per 1 million people, Japan’s death rate is 43 times lower, per capita, than that of the U.S. Tokyo had just 292 deaths, 1/56 of the total dead in New York City, even though the Tokyo metropolitan area is much larger than that of New York City. Now, Japan is one of the first countries to declare victory and lift its state of emergency.
So, what’s the secret?
Based on everything we’ve been conditioned to believe, we would have to conclude that Japan must have locked down people in their rooms with tape on their mouths and contact-traced every time someone went to the bathroom, right?
In fact, officials did none of that. They did not mandate draconian shutdowns, did not destroy their economy, and didn’t even engage in mass testing the way South Korea did but were just as successful in keeping the fatalities down. Thus, lockdowns are irrelevant to any mitigation.
What did they do? It’s hard to say which ingredient helped more than others, but in general they focused like a laser beam on one simple policy that is responsible for most of the spread – avoiding mass gatherings that function as super-spreaders. And they did so early. Most Western countries acted too late, and when they acted, they engaged in gratuitous fascism to the point of arresting a single man surfing alone in the water. Instead of all that, Japan immediately avoided super-spreading events.
We see the same results everywhere. In Hong Kong, 20% were likely responsible for 80% of the spread. In Israel, 1%-10% were responsible for 80%. Countries that dealt with that from day one had better results. Thereafter, whatever they did made zero difference. Any discussion of lockdowns, mass mandatory testing, mask-wearing, and contact-tracing long after the introduction of the virus through large events is useless and only results in disproportionate collateral damage.
Cutting off international travel and avoiding large, crowded events are the only mitigation efforts that can make a difference early on. Once the horses leave the barn, a country will suffer the same curve-like pattern of infection for 6-10 weeks, no matter what it does thereafter.
Perhaps the Japanese were alerted earlier than others to deal with this in a commonsense way by their experience with the infected Diamond Princess ship, already quarantined at the port of Yokohama in early February. They were alerted to the potential danger of the viral spread, but at the same time, they were also able to see that the virus was not highly deadly except to those with pre-existing conditions, per the experience of those onboard the ship.
It’s true that nearly all Asian countries had much better results than Western countries. This may be because their populations have been exposed to more forms of coronavirus and have a larger degree of cross-immunity, as well as a healthier, less obese population than most Western countries. However, given Japan’s lack of lockdown and ubiquitous testing, it should have had a bigger problem than comparable Asian countries, if we are to believe those who adhere to lockdown dogma with immutable faith.
Moreover, we need not just rely on the experience of an Asian country to demonstrate that lockdowns have zero effect on the trajectory of the virus. Just look at the European countries and U.S. states that have come out of lockdown earlier as an example of positive results without a lockdown.
Switzerland, like nearly every other Western country, did not enjoy the low death rates of the Asian countries. But 222 deaths per 1 million is well in line with the average. Officials also announced an end to the national emergency, and the country is doing so well that they announced this week they will take their reopening to the next level. They plan to reopen all outdoor zoos and pools, reopen all businesses, and allow all gatherings up to 300 people. They have already been in phase one for quite some time and have not seen a resurgence of hospitalizations or new cases overall.
Also, per their internal studies on the lack of significant child-to-adult transmissions, they are encouraging grandparents to care for their grandchildren again. Elementary schools reopened on May 11, and there have been no problems. Now all high schools will reopen, per the recommendation of Alain Berset, the minister of health and member of the governing Federal Council. Summer camps will be allowed to open normally, so long as they don’t exceed 300 campers.
We’re seeing this throughout countries in Europe and in states like Florida, Georgia, and Texas, where they are simply not seeing a resurgence in hospitalizations. Their hospitals are empty. Despite being the first European country to reopen, Denmark’s R0 – the average number of infections caused by one person – declined from 0.9 to 0.7 during the first week of May.
Even the director of health at the World Health Organization, María Neira, is now beginning to rule out a mass second wave. “There are many models that advance with a high probability,” said Neira on Monday. “They speak from a punctual regrowth to a major wave, but this last possibility is increasingly being ruled out.” (Translation from Spanish by Google translate.)
Which is why the only sane pathway forward, which would also recognize the even larger share of life lost to the lockdown, would be for the healthy and less vulnerable to completely resume normal life with reasonable hygiene and avoidance of indoor crowding. And no, we don’t need to test everyone in order to have our lives back. The Norwegians realized that testing is worthless for the general population and should be reserved for nursing homes, health care workers, and those who appear sick.
The Left always said that America needs to be more like Europe and Japan in terms of health policy. Well, why are they suddenly so shy about playing follow the leader?
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.