This week, the Federal Council again massively tightened the Covid 19 measures for Switzerland to contain the further spread of the highly contagious and now mutated virus. The prescriptions this time were similar to those of spring 2020: closed restaurants and cultural venues, a ban on Sunday trading, shop closures, obligatory working from home and a restriction on private gatherings to yet fewer people. Although neither stores nor restaurants with Covid protection concepts are significant places of contagion, Switzerland, in a wave of previously unseen belief in the state, has opted for far-reaching official restrictions and limitations on individual and economic freedoms. The multiple negative effects resulting from these restrictions have been ignored.
Taiwan: more inhabitants, fewer Covid cases and higher economic growth
The global nature of the pandemic allows us to look beyond our own borders: what measures have been implemented elsewhere, and how well have they worked?
Taiwan provides an interesting comparison. Both Switzerland and Taiwan are geographically small, democratically organized, and have internationally competitive export sectors. But while Switzerland has a population of 8.6 million, Taiwan runs to 23.6 million, almost three times as many.
Remarkably, however, this difference has not affected the number of Covid cases. While Switzerland recorded more than 8,000 cases a day at its peak in November (7-day average, close to half a million cases since the outbreak of the pandemic), Taiwan never recorded more than 20 confirmed infections a day and has registered only slightly more than 800 cases so far. This despite initially more than 200 flights a week from China, including direct flights from Wuhan.
Not only are the number of Covid cases very different between Taiwan and Switzerland, so are their effects on the economy. Economic growth in Taiwan last year is estimated at 2.5 percent, driven by the export sector. Exports reached a new record, mainly thanks to demand for 5G components new opportunities as a result of the trade war between the US and China, as well as from countries that were heavily affected by Covid-19 and experienced supply difficulties.
For Switzerland, growth in 2020 is forecast to have fallen by 3.5 percent . This is the country’s worst recession in 45 years. In March and April alone, an estimated 10 percent of GDP was lost due to the hard lockdown, and in December, the economic costs are likely to be an additional CHF 10 billion.
What are the reasons that have led to such different results? A webinar organized by Avenir Suisse explored possible answers.
Contrasting strategies in the fight against the virus
In their fight against the coronavirus, Switzerland and Europe have relied on a “strategy of coexistence.” They assume people must learn to live with the virus. Lockdowns – depending on case numbers and hospital capacities – have been used to contain particularly severe outbreaks.
Taiwan, by contrast, is pursuing a “lock-out” approach to keep the virus out of the country altogether. The key points of Taiwan’s strategy are:
- Professional crisis management
Taiwan learned valuable lessons from the 2003 Sars epidemic, which was devastating for the region. These lessons are now helping to manage Covid-19.
Political responsibilities have been defined more clearly and official communication channels improved. Sars not only led to a steep learning curve for the government, but also raised sustained awareness among the population, so that even strict measures hardly lead to major public discussions. Whereas in Switzerland compulsory mask wearing is seen by some as an infringement of individual liberty, the Taiwanese trust the preventive health instructions of the authorities on the basis of past experience.
- Early response
The Sars epidemic, with the pathogen having a mortality rate many times higher than Covid-19, led to the implementation of a comprehensive warning system to quickly detect outbreaks of a new virus. So in the case of Covid, the island strengthened its border controls as early as December 2019. That was followed by strict quarantine rules for new arrivals and ramped up contact tracing using state-of-the-art technology. Thanks to this early response, Taiwan was could stay one step ahead of the virus.
- Functioning contact tracing thanks to consistent digitization
In Taiwan, the coverage of the population with cell phones and access to the web is 160 percent. Coupled with a national health insurance system that combines health and travel data, this enabled efficient contact tracing. Additionally, the use of telemedicine helped reduce physical contacts without having to forgo medical advice.
- Resilient value chains
Critical elements of value chains were shifted in advance to different production channels to increase resilience in a crisis. Together with investors, additional funds could be quickly made available through the capital market to expand development and production.
- Adequate border controls
The enforcement of rigid border controls has been greatly helped by Taiwan’s island status. But to attribute the success of the strategy to this alone falls short. Europe has two larger islands, Ireland and the United Kingdom, but their pandemic management has been significantly less successful than Taiwan’s.
To what extent can we copy Taiwan’s approach?
The Taiwanese Covid 19 strategy cannot be copied directly by Switzerland. But we can certainly learn from it. Switzerland – like the rest of Europe – will have to draw lessons from the continent’s first pandemic in 100 years and will need to be better prepared for another eventual outbreak in future. This includes a faster response time as soon as a new, infectious type of virus is discovered somewhere in the world. The use of digital technologies in healthcare – while respecting data protection – must be advanced quickly. The fax machine definitely belongs to another age. As far as the use of personal data by the government is concerned, our European social culture sets limits. These must be respected, in the knowledge that it may mean cutting back on the effectiveness of pandemic control.
In the event of a pandemic – as in Taiwan – border controls should be handled more rigidly, up to and including closures. However, this should not be done along national borders, but at the external borders of the Schengen area. The warning system should be uniformly applied at European level. The free movement of people within Europe is a valuable asset that must be maintained even in times of crisis. Switzerland in particular benefits greatly from it, not least because of many foreign cross-border workers in the healthcare sector.
Taiwan gained experience with Sars that Europe is only gaining now with the coronavirus. The European strategy of living with the virus instead of locking it out corresponds to the attempt to fight the pandemic while preserving individual freedoms as much as possible. Nevertheless, Taiwan’s “lock-out” strategy is showing undeniable success in health and economic terms. We should take inspiration from it in individual points, so that next time not only Taiwan, but also Switzerland, do better.
Introduction and closing remarks
- Dr. Peter Grünenfelder, Director Avenir Suisse, Zurich
- Dr. David Huang, Director Representative Office of Taiwan, Bern
- Dr. Patrick Dümmler, Senior Fellow Avenir Suisse
- Dr. Johnsee Lee, Chairman, Precision Medicine & Molecular Diagnostics Industry Association of Taiwan , Honorary Chairman, Taiwan Bio Industry Organization
- Dr. Felix R. Ehrat, Chairman and Board Member of Multiple Companies, Lecturer University St. Gallen, Former Member of the Executive Committee Novartis
- Dr. Ting-Shou Chen, Division Director, Precision Medicine and Diagnostic Technology Division, Biomedical Technology and Device Research Labs, Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI)
- Dr. Muh-Hwan Su, General Manager, SynCore Biotechnology Co., Ltd.
Manufacturing, transportation and travel
- Alexander Hagemann, CEO, Cicor Group
- Justin Huang, Manager, Evergreen Shipping Agency GmbH, Basel Branch
- Peter Kuo, President Edison Travel Service Co., Ltd., Convener of Europe, America, New Zealand and Australia Market Taiwan Visitors Association
Risk management and future market development
- Ivo Menzinger, Head EMEA, Public Sector Solutions, Swiss Re
- Dr. Roger Wehrli, Deputy Head General Economic Policy & Education, Economiesuisse
- Reto Renggli, Director, Trade Office of Swiss Industries
- Brian Lee, Deputy Executive Director, Market Development Department, Taiwan External Trade Development Council