Civil Liberties After COVID: Lessons from Taiwan

The Christian Science Monitor has a great and topical piece examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on rights and freedoms across the world. As probably the only event in history to affect the entire world more or less equally—even the Spanish Flu and world wars were less widespread in their impact—the pandemic served as something of a social and political experiment: How is humanity as a whole responding? What are the distinctions across societies, cultures, and systems of government concerning this perennial challenging balance safety and security with individual and community freedom?

“That tension is long-standing, liberty versus security. Are they complements or substitutes?” says Marcella Alsan, professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, who studies public health and infectious diseases. “What’s interesting about the current situation, and particularly prior to the development of the vaccines – when all countries basically have the very same rudimentary toolkit of these NPIs, these nonpharmaceutical interventions – was basically, How willing were people to go along with these restrictions? What were they willing to sacrifice and what were they not willing to sacrifice?”

Ms. Alsan oversaw a November study that surveyed over 400,000 people across 15 nations about their attitudes toward civil liberties during the pandemic. More than 80% were agreeable to giving up some freedoms during a crisis. A closer look at the results, however, reveals gradations between citizens of different nations. Those surveyed in the United States and Japan were far less willing to relax privacy protections, sacrifice the freedom of press, and endure economic losses than those in China. Citizens in European countries occupied a middle ground between those two poles. Respondents in India, Singapore, and South Korea were more willing to suspend democratic procedures for the sake of public health. 

According to Human Rights Watch, 83 governments restricted free speech and free assembly in the name of pandemic protections. Enforcement of those measures could be harsh. Youths in the Philippines were locked in dog cages following curfew violations, says Ms. Pearson. In India, police physically assaulted 10 journalists who reported that a COVID-19 roadblock in the southeast was preventing villagers from reuniting with their families. South Africa enforced a ban on cigarettes and alcohol by setting up roadblocks to search cars for contraband.

“Freedom House has been tracking a decline in [global] democracy for the past 15 consecutive years, and what we found is that COVID-19 has really exacerbated that decline,” says Amy Slipowitz, research manager for Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit that tracks civil liberties worldwide.

Frightening stuff, and not entirely surprising: The Spanish Flu of the early twentieth century, which ranks second only to COVID-19 in its reach and impact, saw similar concerns, controversies, and conflict related to lockdowns and their political and civil ramifications. Over a century later, we are faced with very familiar problems—only this time, governments are exceedingly more technologically sophisticated.

One country that stands out in the report is Taiwan, whose highly effective response to the pandemic—as a developed and vibrant democracy—has led its star to rise like never before in the global community. Apparently, its excellent job at minimizing the spread and death toll of the virus did not come at the severe cost of its citizens’ freedoms, now or into the future.

[Some] countries, including Sweden and South Korea, placed a high value on maintaining a fairly open society. Taiwan did so by forging a state-society collaboration. Prior to becoming one of the world’s freest democracies, the small island nation had been subject to martial law and single-party rule from 1947 until the late 1980s. That relatively recent experience colored the Taiwanese response to the pandemic. Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control had legal authority to implement stringent measures, but it didn’t declare a state of emergency. Schools and stores remained open. In those instances when Taiwan did curtail liberties – including a track-and-trace program that included strict border controls – it employed a humane touch. Individuals placed under mandatory 14-day home quarantine received meal deliveries and trash disposal services. A hotline was set up for their mental health. And in response to concerns that those penned inside a digital fence could be watched by Big Brother long after the pandemic, the state promised to erase that cellphone data. 

“The government recognized that, because the people’s freedom of movement is temporarily suspended, it is the responsibility of the government to take care of those individuals who had to be isolated for the sake of the public,” says Tsung-Ling Lee, an assistant professor of law at Taipei Medical University. “The government is seeking broad-based social support in that a lot of our measures that have to be implemented in the epidemic are relational.”

Taiwan’s government also favored persuasion over coercion. Case in point: its handling of one of the world’s three largest religious ceremonies, the Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage. Every April, tens of thousands join in a nine-day parade that originates at the Zhenlan temple and proceeds through a large swath of the island. Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control has broad legal leeway to institute emergency measures such as prohibiting large public gatherings. Instead, the minister of health and welfare approached the temple’s chairman, a former opposition party member of the country’s legislature. The minister persuaded the temple to change its plans and delay the parade by several months. The temple went even further – it donated its parade budget to the Central Epidemic Command Center. In turn, the minister later appeared at a temple ceremony as a gesture of grateful appreciation to the worshippers.

“It’s better to foster a bottom-up approach toward where the boundaries should be versus having a top-down authoritarian approach of where the boundary should be,” says Ming-Cheng Lo, a professor of sociology and East Asian studies at the University of California, Davis, in a phone call from Taiwan.

All this is a huge turnaround from nearly a decade ago, when Taiwan was an epicenter of the 2003 SARS outbreak, to which it responded with political infighting, polarization, and social fragmentation and cynicism. While that virus infected fewer than four hundred people, and left “only” 73 dead, it exposed some very troubling rifts in Taiwanese society and government that could have made its COVID-19 cousin even deadlier.

Instead, Taiwan appears to have learned its lesson: While political divisions are no better than eight years ago, citizens and politicians alike have set them aside for the greater good. Media across the political spectrum emphasized the “importance of societal collaboration and compassion”. One Taiwanese sociologist credits the “traumatic” experience of the SARS outbreak with helping “Taiwanese to fundamentally reassess the boundaries between personal choice and civic duty during this emergency”. As she told the CS Monitor:

To have that consensus, then eliminates the need, or at least minimized the need, of having to send police to patrol the streets to see if people who are under quarantine are actually breaking the rules. Citizens deliberated among themselves and said, “This is a sacrifice that we should all make in order to protect the greater good of all of us.”

So did an internationally isolated nation that has only been democratic for roughly thirty years crack the code of balancing liberty and security, personal freedom with public health, and all the other complexities that come with maintaining a democracy? If so, what does that say about the role of cultural and community values in helping society navigate the precarious balance of safety and freedom? What are your thoughts?

Taiwan: A global model for balancing the inherent tensions within a democratic society?

A Short and Hasty Guide on the Suez Canal Saga

I know I’m quite a bit late to the party (though I definitely indulged in all the glorious memes), but I think any time is a good time to learn about the otherwise overlooked bit of our global infrastructure that suddenly became a global phenomenon.

World Happiness Report: Finland Tops the List Again, Most Countries Resilient Thru COVID-19

The ninth annual World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations, has just been released, and it’s the first to follow an unprecedented global calamity that impacted billions and personally affected tens of millions more. So, needless to say, its results should be interesting, if not grim.

But as the Washington Post reported, the world was largely resilient through the pandemic, maintaining a relatively positive outlook for the future:

In a conclusion that even surprised its editors, the 2021 World Happiness Report found that, amid global hardship, self-reported life satisfaction across 95 countries on average remained steady in 2020 from the previous year. The United States saw the same trend — despite societal tumult that yielded a national drop in positive emotions and a rise in negative ones. The country fell one spot, to 19th, in the annual rankings of the report, which was released Saturday.

The report is good news regarding global resilience, experts say.

“I don’t want to leave an impression that all was well, because it’s not,” said one of the report’s editors, Jeffrey Sachs, an economics professor at Columbia University. But while the use of national averages masks individual well-being disparities, Sachs said, the data suggests that “people have not thrown up their hands about their lives.”

You can read more about the methodology here, but basically, it draws its data from the Gallup World Poll, which asks people worldwide to rate their current life satisfaction from zero to ten, with ten representing “the best possible life” and zero the “worst possible life”. Respondents are also asked to report their positive and negative emotions and experiences felt the day before the survey.

Taking together both short-term and long-term self-evaluations of life satisfaction, the WHR found these to be the twenty happiest countries through 2020:

The next twenty runners up are a pretty eclectic mix as well, spanning an ever broader variety of cultures, political systems, and levels of economic development:

Overall, while there was a “significantly higher frequency of negative emotions” in just over a third of the 149 countries measuredagain, do mostly to the pandemic things got better for 22 countries, particularly in Asia; even China moved up ten places to 84th. As one of the report’s author’s noted, there was not an overall decline in well-being as expressed by the respondents.

For the U.S., which has been one of the harder-hit countries during the pandemic, to say nothing of its tumultuous social and political circumstances?

In late March to early April of 2020, at the beginning of pandemic restrictions, 58.2 percent of U.S. respondents rated their current life satisfaction as a 7 or above, Gallup found.

While the number of Americans reporting anxiety and depressive symptoms rose sharply over the course of 2020, that satisfaction number stayed fairly even through December, according to the report, even after further covid-19 restrictions, pandemic surges, protests over racial injustices and politics, and a divisive presidential election.

All the while, Americans’ expected future happiness remained high: In five surveys since the pandemic began, between 65.8 and 69.2 percent of respondents said they expected their life satisfaction to be an 8 or above five years into the future, higher than before the pandemic. That suggests an optimism for the future that Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside, says is “really, really adaptive.”

Counterintuitively, it may have been the awful hardship of the past year that actually gave a boost to a lot of folks’ happiness:

It’s not so much that people are doing precisely as well as they were before, experts explain, as that many have adapted to their new situations in ways that might have roughly evened out their well-being. “One of the quotes we use is ‘You aren’t traveling the world, but you’re more likely to have met your neighbors this year,’ ” said John Helliwell, another editor of the report and a professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia.

Stressors such as those we’ve experienced this year can encourage people to craft a different, big-picture concept of happiness. And this, psychologists say, can improve resilience. You’ve already likely taken the opportunity to examine your own big picture this past year, but, if you’ve been having difficulty, and because we’re not done with this pandemic, here are some strategies to help.

Of course, this isn’t to make light of all the horrors that have unfolded across the world this past year alone. Just because something doesn’t kill you, doesn’t mean it makes you stronger, and enough people around you being killed or maimed by war, disease, or the wanton cruelties of life will take its toll.

Still, this would explain why countries like Costa Rica, Bahrain, Guatemala, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia—which together struggle with chronic poverty, inequality, violence, and/or political oppression—can be among the happiest places in the world, at the same level as, if not ahead of, much better-off places.

But that brings us to Finland, which has topped the ranking for the fourth time in a row. In fact, all but one of the top ten (New Zealand) are northern European countries—the same places that perform well in rankings of livability, life expectancy, democratic governance, low corruption, and the like. Clearly, happiness still has a lot to do with material and environmental conditions—money can only buy so much of it, as we all hear, but there is some point where baseline needs like shelter, health, economic security, and the like must be met to better ensure lifelong satisfaction.

Indeed, Finland seems to reflect this delicate balance perfectly. On the one hand, as Afar explains, there’s the cultural component:

Finns embrace a unique spirit of fortitude for thriving in tough times, which for them, often manifests via the weather. This national ideology even has a name: It’s called sisu, and it’s at the core of Finns’ well-being, suggests Katja Pantzar, a Helsinki-based journalist and author of The Finnish Way, which delves into the concept. As Pantzar explains, sisu is focused on persevering when the odds are against you and to view challenges as opportunities. “Instead of waiting for a warm sunny day,” she offers, “many Finns practice daily sisu by heading out in any kind of weather for a brisk walk or cycle, or to spend time in nature.” These simple and sensible activities are at the heart of what keeps Finns happy, Pantzar concludes, adding “I keep returning to this Finnish saying, ‘Happiness does not come from searching for it, but by living.’” And living with sisu, for Pantzar, like many Finns, means bundling up in the snow to bike to work or swimming in the sea year-round— even when it’s covered in ice.

But there is also a concerted effort to put in place economic, political, and social structures that promote individual and community stability, human flourishing, and ultimately life satisfaction, as detailed in Forbes:

Finland has long been praised by a multitude of international bodies for its extensive welfare benefits, low levels of corruption, well-functioning democracy, and its instilled sense of freedom and autonomy. Its progressive taxation and wealth distribution has allowed for a flourishing universal healthcare system, and, staggeringly, more than 80% of Finns trust their police force, which is far more than many other countries can claim. 

Finland has long been punching above its weight within the global economy, too, giving the world global brands such as Nokia, Rovio (developer of Angry Birds), Supercell (creators of Clash of Clans) and elevator manufacturer KONE. 

The country is famous for being one of the first countries to push the flat working model, which exemplifies the Finnish approach to how businesses should be run, as well as how employees should be treated in the workplace. The flat working model is one in which there are few – or sometimes even zero – hierarchal levels between management and staff. Typically there is less supervision of employees and the structure aims to promote increased involvement with organizational decision-making, enabling open communication between all departments and teams within a business. 

The key takeaway from Forbes is that Finland and its high-ranking peers all share a holistic approach to human rights and happiness, one that recognizes that individual freedom comes from having the right resources and environment to unlock your potential and self-actualize:

The happiness of the Finnish people stems not only from its large number of welfare policies, its intrinsic affinity for mutual trust and equality but also from freedom. The mindset that one can only be free and independent if everyone is equally free and independent drives the country’s policy-making and underpins what it means to be Finnish. 

For many, it’s about living in a country where all conceivable basic needs are met, whether that’s healthcare, education, or having a job that makes you feel fulfilled. The overarching theme is that Finland remains ahead of the curve in so many facets of life. For now, Finland is ranking top, but the hope is that the example Finland is setting helps other countries to better care for their people. The fact that the country continues to pioneer social and economic welfare, education and working best-practice is something of which other countries should take note when looking at improving the happiness of their people.

Not bad for a country that just seventy years ago was one of the poorest and most devastated in the world. It goes to show that maybe happiness and well-being need not be so abstract and philosophical: Yes, the deeply poor and traumatized can be happy, while the very rich and privileged can be miserable, but the overall picture from around the world is that culture, mindset, and baseline material wealth all build on each other. With mutual trust comes resilience and security, and with security and resilience comes more mutual trust (i.e., you know your fellow citizens and institutions will look out for you); it’s a virtuous cycle that can persist even though the worst circumstances.

But those are just my own rushed thoughts — what do you think?

World Water Day

Yesterday was World Water Day, launched by the UN in 1993 to raise awareness about the importance of water both environmentally and for humanity as a whole.

I think our strictly terrestrial species is ill-equipped to truly grasp the significance of water, from its role in generating most of our oxygen, to the fact that most living things that have ever lived have been aquatic or amphibious.

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As a middle class person in a developed part of the world, it is also east to take for granted just how elusive access to clean water is; for most of human history, most humans died or were sickened (sometimes permanently) by diseases related to dirty water.

While we’ve made tremendous progress over the past century alone, well over a million humans still die annually from water-borne diseases (many of them children), and nearly one out of four people lack the access to clean water that most us take as a given. The effects of climate change and overexploitation risks depleting an already strained water supply—making World Water Day’s mission of awareness all the more invaluable.

Below is a big data dump concerning all things water, including the progress we’ve made in expanding clean water access, and the challenges that remain in continuing this development while doing so sustainably.

The Father of Modern Bank Robbery

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Despite his fame, this is the only photo of him (Wikimedia)

On this day in 1930, German-American bank robber Herman “The Baron” Lamm— the so-called “father of modern bank robbery”—committed suicide when he was cornered by over 200 cops and armed citizens in Sidell, Illinois, following a botched heist.

Formerly a soldier in the Prussian Army—considered one of the finest military forces in history—Lamm immigrated to the United States following expulsion from his regiment after getting caught cheating with cards. Lamm applied his stellar military training to his crimes: He believed a heist required all the planning of a military operation. With his meticulous planning system, known as the “Lamm Technique”, he pioneered the concepts of “casing” a bank and strategizing escape routes before conducting the robbery. At the time, bank robberies were almost always improvised and thus largely a matter of luck.

Not so for Lamm. He developed a system involving carefully studying a target bank for many hours before the robbery, developing a detailed floor plan, noting the location of safes, taking meticulous notes and establishing escape routes. Sometimes he had an accomplice pose as a journalist to better understand the inner workings of the bank. Lamm assigned each gang member a specific job, along with a specific zone of the bank they were charged with surveying and a strict timetable to complete their stage of the robbery. He also assigned positions of lookout, getaway driver, lobby man and vault man—all of which are a given today. He also put his men through a series of rehearsals, some of which involved using a full-scale mock-up of the interior of the bank. Lamm stressed the importance of timing during these practice runs and used stopwatches to ensure the proper results were achieved. He only allowed his gang members to stay in a bank for a specific period of time, regardless of how much money they could steal.

As a result of this uniquely methodical approach, Lamm and his gang executed dozens of successful bank robberies between 1918 and 1930. But luck ran out after a robbery in Clinton, Indiana, when his getaway driver got spooked by an armed civilian approaching the vehicle (many towns had formed vigilante or citizen militias in response to the spate of bank robberies in the area). A series of misfortunes—including two different hijacked cars not working well—led to him being cornered in Sidell, which prompted his suicide over getting captured (which would have resulted in a life sentence).

Lamm’s legacy has lived on to this day. Considered one of the best bank robberies to ever live, his techniques were studied and imitated by other bank robbers across the country, including the more famous John Dillinger.

Happy Anniversary to a Famously Humanist Take on Christmas

On this day in 1843, A Christmas Carol by English author Charles Dickens was first published (first edition pictured below), arguably influencing Christmas as we know it more than any pagan tradition. In fact, the phrase “Merry Christmas” was popularized by the story!

Left-hand page shows Mr and Mrs Fezziwig dancing; the right-hand page shows the words "A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens. With illustrations by John Leech
Wikimedia Commons

Dickens was ambiguous about religion; while he was likely a Christian and admired Jesus, he openly disliked rigid orthodoxy, evangelicalism, and organized religion. (He once published a pamphlet opposing the banning of games on the Sabbath, arguing that people had a right to pleasure.)

To that end, a Christmas Carol placed less emphasis on faith and observance and instead focused on family, goodwill, compassion, and joy. Dickens sought to incorporate his more humanist approach to the holiday, constructing Christmas as a family-centered festival that promotes generosity, feasting, and social cohesion. Some scholars have even termed this “Carol Philosophy”.

So when religious and nonreligious folks alike think of loved ones and the “Christmas spirit”, they are basically channeling Dickens’ once-unique take on the holiday. (Though in his time, other British writers had begun to reimagine Christmas as a celebratory holiday, rather than a strictly religious occasion.)

The Intelligence of Betta Fish

Contrary to popular belief, Siamese fighting fish are fairly intelligent. Research indicates they have complex behaviors, social interactions, and even individualized personalities. Males engage in carefully coordinated combat, dance-like courtship, and the building of “bubble nests”, which they fiercely protect; all this indicates a fairly well developed nervous system. Bettas are even capable of associative learning, meaning they develop and adopt certain responses to new stimuli (think of Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs, where they learned to associate a bell ring with food).

Having had bettas for over fifteen years—including around 36 at the moment (blame the pandemic!)—I can vouch for this by personal experience. Our bettas are inquisitive, alert, and generally perceptive of their surroundings, watching and exploring anything new that comes their way. They also have varied personalities: Some are nearly always aggressive, tending to flare at us when we walk by; others are more shy and reclusive. They even have distinct tastes in food (which has prompted me to get several different brands and types).

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Our beautiful betta Dream, a “dumbo” or “elephant ear” type.

Now, aside from this being anecdotal, I know we humans tend to anthropomorphize animals, especially our pets, attributing human traits, behaviors, and intelligence to their natural behaviors. But there is quite a bit of scientific research backing my impressions (and perhaps those of fellow betta fish keepers).

In fact, Siamese fighting fish are frequently utilized in physiology and psychology studies due to their complex biology; many scientists in these fields consider them “prime models” in understanding how hormones and other hormones affect behavior.

For example, one study found that bettas were affected by antidepressants, specifically fluoxetine, which relies on serotonin transporter pathways to regulate behaviors; in this case, the bettas saw a reduction in their characteristic aggression, which indicates that have a comparable neurological framework. (In fact, bettas can be bored, depressed, and happy; moving them to a bigger tank or placing new decorations will elicit a positive response, with each specific betta having its own preference.)

A more recent study showed that bettas are able to synchronize their behavior during fights—something that has been observed among mammal as well! The longer they fought, the more they could precisely time their strikes and bites, to an extent that surprised the researchers. The study also determined that fights are highly choreographed, with seemingly “agreed on” breaks between each move. Bouts escalated every five to ten minutes, when fish locked onto each other’s jaws to prevent breathing—and thus test who can hold out the longest. The bettas then break apart to catch their breath, and the cycle begins anew—not unlike a boxing match!

Even more surprising, the team found that this synchronicity went down to the molecular level: Certain genes of the combatants were “turned on”, and while it is unclear what they do, this may influence how bettas will engage in future fights. Thanks to the betta’s renowned martial prowess, the researchers claim to have a “new dimension” to studying the relationship between genes and the nervous system in humans.

Given the complex personalities among bettas, and their capacity to feel happy, sad, or bored, they should be given far more than a cup or vase to live in: Not unlike humans, they prefer more space, more decor, and cleaner water, even if they can otherwise tolerate less than ideal conditions.

The Seeds of the International Order

Posted @withregram • @ungeneva

Geneva, capital of the world, was crowded to capacity today when representatives of nearly half a hundred nations from every corner of the globe gathered to attend the first meeting of the assembly of the League of Nations.

One hundred years ago this week, the first session of the assembly of the newly established League of Nations was held in the Reformation Hall in Geneva. The meeting brought together representatives of 42 countries representing more than half of the world’s population at the time.

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Archive photo/League of Nations

Though the League of Nations is better known for its abject failure to prevent World War II—which led to its replacement by the United Nations in 1945—it is difficult to understate its bold and audacious vision: For the first time in our bloody and divided history, there was a sense of cooperation and community among our fractured civilizations. The League set in motion the growing global consciousness and interconnectedness we see to this day (however tenuously). It also brought attention to issues that were long overlooked or dismissed by most societies: poverty, slavery, refugees, epidemics, and more. It thus laid the groundwork for organizations that aid tens of millions of people worldwide.

Ironically, despite its failure to stop the bloodiest war in history, the League’s successor, the UN, has been credited with preventing any large interstate conflicts to this day—in part because it created a League-induced forum for countries to duke it out at the table rather than the battlefield (to paraphrase Eisenhower). We got a hell of a ways to go, but we have to start somewhere, and this 100-year experiment with internationalism and pan-humanism pales to thousands of years of constant war and repression.

Thank you for your time!

The Swedes Who Saved Millions of Lives

Meet the Nils Bohlin and Gunnar Engellau, whose work at Swedish carmaker Volvo has helped save millions of lives worldwide.

Engellau, Volvo’s president and an engineer himself, helped push for a more effective seatbelt, after a relative died in a traffic accident due partly to the flaws of the two-point belt design—which was not even standard feature in cars at the time. This personal tragedy drove Engellau to find a better solution, hiring Bohlin to find a solution quickly.

There were two major problems with the historic two-point belt design, which crosses the lap only. First, because the human pelvis is hinged, a single strap fails to restrain the torso, leaving passengers vulnerable to severe head, chest and spinal injuries; positioned poorly, the belt can even crush internal organs on impact. Second, they were notoriously uncomfortable, so many people chose not to wear them. Bohlin’s innovation was to find a design that resolved both problems at once.

After millions of dollars and thousands of tests through the 1950s and 1960s, Volvo became the first carmaker in the world to standardize the three-point safety belt we now take for granted. More than that, Volvo pushed hard for the seatbelt to be adopted in its native Sweden, which like most places was initially resistant to having to wear seatbelts.

But Volvo didn’t stop there. While it patented the designs to protect their investment from copy-cats, the company did not charge significant license fees to rivals or keep the design to itself to give their cars an edge. Knowing that lives were at stake worldwide, Engellau made Bohlin’s patent immediately available to all. Having sponsored the costly R&D, they gifted their designs to competitors to encourage mass adoption. It is estimated that Volvo may have lost out on $400 million in additional profits, if not more.

Instead, literally millions of people have been spared injury and death by this now-ubiquitous seatbelt we take for granted. All because a couple of Swedes decided to put people over profits (which isn’t to say they didn’t reap any financial incentive, but proved you can do both).