International travel during this age of COVID-19 can induce a jarring culture shock.
Recently, I flew out of the UK, a state with one of the worst cases and deaths per million population figures, and into Taiwan, a country with one of the best records for containing the spread of the disease.
Off the ramp in Taipei, I am steered to a line for non-residents who need to quarantine, which is everyone. I pay NT$1,000 for a 30-day 4G mobile phone number, I confirm my quarantine details and contacts, go through customs, collect my luggage and am steered to a taxi, which takes me straight to my quarantine hotel.
I stay there, three meals a day in my room for 14 days, taking my temperature twice daily and keying it into the hotel’s online form. I get one daily automated phone call to report my general condition. Press “1” if you feel fine.
The precinct foreign affairs police call me twice during quarantine, once at the start and then at the end, to establish rules. Then, I am free, and I am on the MRT railway system, and shopping and visiting possibly the best railway museum in the world (that does not feature a full-size model of a train), and I am relaxing in the public hot springs in Beitou District (北投). All my favorite places to eat are open and I feel I am home.
Two weeks later, I am flying back. In Hong Kong there are more security personnel, cleaners and builders than passengers in transfers. My state’s flagship carrier tells me it cannot provide a full hot meal service on a 13-hour flight because of infection control concerns.
There is no quarantine line at Heathrow Airport, just customs. At customs I need to set up an account with the government Web site and fill in the details of where I will be spending my 14-day self-isolation. An e-mail is sent to me, it contains an attached PDF. The PDF has a QR code that customs scans from my mobile phone, and I am free to pick up my luggage and manage my self-isolation.
I manage this by getting a coffee before boarding a bus, then driving with a relative to eat breakfast at a popular restaurant, before arriving at my self-isolation destination — voluntarily masked all the way.
I have no other contact from the government in the 14 days after arrival. A second wave of the disease is sweeping the UK, soccer is on the TV, but the crowd noise is artificially generated. Nowhere is really safe, and I know I am home.
Having left the UK and returned, aside from how surreal, but privileged my experience has been, the contrast in quality of life, health, and economic and political stability between Taiwan and the UK cannot be ignored. It is akin to flying business class then suddenly riding in steerage on a steam boat.
“Ladies and gentlemen, owing to COVID-19 we will be temporarily implementing some movement restrictions in the aisles on this Air Taiwan flight and we are requesting that everyone wear their masks for a short while until the pandemic light is turned off. There is some disappointing avionic irresponsibility in the vicinity so please keep your seat belts securely fastened at all times. As we fly through these spots we will continue to send flight alerts directly to your seats, and please do make use of the inboard entertainment system to register your observations and opinions on the flight and the crew, and any needs you may have. We are currently holding a steady altitude, 60 percent thrust and majority positive passenger approval.”
Meanwhile, on HMS Britannia, there are enfeebled cries for mutiny as the captain again changes the cabin isolation rules, and is now deliberately steering toward an onrushing tsunami. The public-address system is broken, so all we can hear are three-word sentences, some Elgar, grubby laughter and occasional screams. We have been promised a Spitfire flyby later, which will be nice, and next month all cabins will mark a two-minute silence to commemorate lives lost to nationalistic pride and self-destructive stupidity. The Welsh lifeboat has set off with resolve, but it is still tethered to us. The Scots have built their own lifeboat, but they cannot get permission to launch, and no one is talking about the Irish.
It would be easy to torture the analogy further, such is the mind-bendingly insouciant way my home continues to treat the spread of COVID-19 and the looming exit from the EU not as threats, but only as opportunities. Except these “think outside the box” opportunities keep failing to be substantiated, because the work has not been done to neutralize them as threats first.
In the UK, the government has prioritized keeping the economy open without constraining the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, then belatedly outsourced this responsibility, unaudited, to the private sector as a demonstration of the power of free markets to deliver solutions.
In Taiwan, the government has kept the nation safe from the pandemic as the primary objective, with keeping the economy open and stable a close, but interrelated secondary imperative.
As a result, it is one of the few countries in the world that could be listed as “safe” or “free” from the pandemic, whereas only one of the “English-speaking nations” is on that short list, filed under “Pacific,” not “Atlantic.” It is no coincidence that Taiwan is also one of the few countries that has not registered a massive drop in GDP this year.
What would be the reasons for the disparity of outcomes between Taiwan and the UK?
Both are capitalist states led by an establishment whose political-economy orthodoxy lies firmly on the neoliberal spectrum. Both have a history of extensive state involvement in the economy and provision of services, and both have undergone a rapid period of privatization.
Both are now arguably M-shaped societies featuring high population density, an aging population and falling birthrates. Both have become dependent on migrant labor, and both have a national healthcare system.
Ultimately, the differences between Taiwan’s and the UK’s responses to COVID-19 derive down to the degree to which a single socioeconomic class dominates reproduction of the establishment, whether the government has in good faith engaged with the responsibilities and accountabilities of holding office, and the prevalence within parliament and government of leadership and corruption.
In the UK, the normalization of corruption, with little to no pushback from a client media, is the reason for the absence of leadership.
The move to flagrantly breach an international treaty clearly signals that the British government has been captured by a radicalized minority that is implementing a range of extreme political experiments, using the pandemic as a window to concentrate more power to an increasingly unaccountable state.
At the same time, it is using its fiscal authority to reward donors and friends with “no fail” contracts for companies that take the money and spectacularly fail to deliver. The racist stereotypes we projected for so long onto African states have finally reflected back onto us. It is long overdue.
The greatest cultural shock of returning to the UK has been transitioning from being in a place where steps by the government to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are normalized and effective, to listening to a government tell me that there are no other options for how to contain the virus, and that protecting the economy is the only way to protect peoples’ lives.
Taiwan has its own problems and the reality of its efforts to combat COVID-19 is harder and uglier than the fawning picture I painted earlier. Yet when the moment to act came, the Taiwanese government faced the problem and went to work, while its UK counterpart gaslit and trolled its entire population into an estimated more than 70,000 COVID-related deaths and precipitated a second wave.
This same regime is now talking of a “pivot to Asia,” seeking trade deals to replace those lost by Brexit.
While the Taiwanese government should continue developing trade relations with the UK, it should also be prepared for a high degree of volatility and uncertainty in those relations and their regulatory frameworks over the next year.
It should be especially cautious when dealing with three-word titles for UK projects in which the light is clearly on, but no one is at home. It would be a waste of time and resources knocking at those paper doors.
All great empires are most vulnerable when they are most prosperous in the most corrupt way. Taiwan should regard the UK as an unpredictable, perhaps even rogue, state. A potential partner, but one whose words and deeds are compromised by a lack of gravitas and responsibility behind them.
Ben Goren is a businessman, essayist and a long-term resident of Taiwan.
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