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?

Domestic Politics and the World

A friend from abroad once shared an observation that has stuck with me: That most Americans do not realize how our elections have ramifications for the rest of the world. (Which is why so many nations are invested in them, one way or another.)

The U.S. is still the most powerful country in the world by most measures, and the only one (for now) whose people have some say in its policies or actions. Our president can start de facto wars and launch nukes with little or no oversight; entire nations, if not the world, are potentially at the mercy of whoever occupies the Oval Office. Laws passed in Congress can directly inspire other countries or affect the global economy, by virtue of how large a role we play in this interconnected world. Our economic, diplomatic, and even cultural influence gives us considerable sway over the biggest problems facing humanity, from climate change to the next pandemic. For better or worse, we still set the trend on many global responses, largely by virtue of our vast resources; even our consumer habits can disproportionately impact environments a world away. Many U.S. companies and individuals are richer and more powerful than entire nations; how or whether we choose to reign them in has consequences, too.

The U.S. is not the superpower it once was, and not every global issue comes down to our leadership; many other countries have roles to play, too. But few things are in isolation any more; how our society or presumed leaders do things still has effects across the world that many of us do not even think about. It is an odd thing to imagine something as parochial as elections having anything to do with the rest of the world, but like it or not, they do.

The Unsung Mediators

As with most things, it is easier to focus on the failures than the successes—especially when success is measured by the bad things that never happened. The absence of tragedy does not feel as salient as its occurrence, which makes it easy to take for granted.

This is especially the case with diplomacy and global conflict resolution, which usually happens behind closed doors to allow the parties to save face. Imagine how many wars never happened because cooler heads prevailed, often with the help of nameless and faceless diplomats.

The Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the brink of World War III, but few know, let alone appreciate, that it was the newly appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations—a soft-spoken career diplomat from Burma named U Thant—who persuaded both sides to walk back from the brink and provided a mutually acceptable resolution. American and Russian officials credited the UN, and Thant in particular, for helping deescalate the conflict; JFK remarked that “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt.”

We see this again with UNIFIL, a multinational UN force that has been stationed at the Lebanon-Israel border since 1978 to keep the peace between the two nations. On its face, the mission has been an abject failure: skirmishes between Lebanese militias and Israeli forces continue to this day, even leading to outright war in 2006. Both sides, as well as the U.S., regard UNIFIL as worthless and often call for its mandate to end.

But an official in the Lebanese government noted that there were plenty of flare ups that had been diffused, or even prevented, through negotiations mediated by local UN forces. For all the conflicts it failed to avert—and that subsequently capture all the attention—there were just as many, if not more, that never happened because of UNIFIL intervention behind the scenes.

These are just two examples. Who knows how many more “almost-wars” and tragedies are being avoided every day, even as we speak, by thankless diplomats, negotiators, and mediators.

Postal Services and Prosperity

Postal services have always been a core foundation of advanced civilizations. Hence the U.S. Postal Service is one of the few federal agencies explicitly authorized by the Constitution, based on the understanding that an open and prosperous society relies heavily on the free-flow of information.

We take for granted that until very recently, mail was the world wide web of the day—the sole means in which everyone could communicate and access information on equal footing. That is why the USPS is still relevant to this day, since it is the only service to be fully egalitarian by guaranteeing equally cheap delivery to everyone, regardless of where they live. No wonder it is the most popular federal agency in the country.

There is a lot of historical precedence for this. In the fifth century BCE, Darius the Great of Persia established the earliest confirmed postal service, the Angarium, to consolidate what was then the largest empire in history. It facilitated trade, communication, and cultural exchange at a rate of efficiency that was unprecedented at the time. Remnants of this mail infrastructure are still around.

The riders of the Angarium were well regarded for their honesty, discipline, and efficiency; they could deliver a message across a distance of almost 1,700 miles in just one week—the normal speed was three months! Greek historian Herodotus wrote that:

There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor darkness of night prevents these couriers from completing their designated stages with utmost speed

Sound familiar?

Other empires borrowed from the Persians, or soon realized on their own the vital nature of postal communications. In the first century CE, the Romans established the Cursus publicus to provide special light wagons and faster horses for mail. Genghis Khan created the sophisticated “Ortoo” system for his massive Mongol Empire, which consisted of a complex chain of relay stations 20–40 miles apart, each with a messenger ready to complete the next leg of the journey; with spare horses, food, shelter, this ensured information was constantly on the move without each messenger getting tired. Hence why the famous Silk Road was even a thing!

The World Unites to Help Lebanon

Following the horrific The French President is personally visiting Lebanon—a former French colony that remains staunchly Francophilic—as his country prepares to send aid. Russia has reportedly already dispatched humanitarian flights, while the U.S. vows to do the same. Smaller nations from Norway to Hungary are sending help to Lebanon.

Image may contain: shoes, text that says 'ALJAZEERA Beirut explosion: World reacts to deadly deadly blast in Lebanon capital capital In-Depth hours ago Naharnet Emergency Aid Lands Lebanon World Offers Support 2hours Anadolu Agency Russia sends humanitarian aid planes Lebanon 7hours News New Jersey The Latest: Norway offers $2.74 and medical Lebanon hours Egypttoday Egypt's orders sending 2 planes loaded with medical aid to REUTERS Factbox: France, Turkey, Gulf states among those aiding Beirut after blast hours REUTERS'
A snapshot of all the news fd

Israel—which is technically in a state of war with Lebanon—has taken the unusual step of offering assistance through the UN. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey—all with varying degrees of animosity with one another—are united in sending material and financial support. Even the beleaguered people of Gaza are lining up to donate blood.

I have no delusions that at least some of this aid is motivated by self interest: countries, like individuals, care about their image, reputation, and connections. Lebanon is an especially fractious place where lots of foreign interests, big and small, regularly intervene or back particular factions.

But given the amount of suffering on the ground and the immediate need for assistance, I consider this a win. It was not the long ago that most of us would never even have heard of something happening in a neighboring country, much less halfway around the world, and let alone caring enough to help.

The Largest Scientific Endeavor Breaks Ground!

Somehow, amid all the geopolitical rivalries, tensions, and rising nationalism, nearly three dozen countries—China, India, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Russia, the U.S., and all 27 members of the European Union—are joining forces to launch the largest scientific research facility in history.

Known as ITER, the roughly $24 billion megaproject is being built in southern France to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy. Current nuclear energy relies on fission, where a heavy chemical element, usually uranium, is split to produce lighter ones, thereby generating energy—but also radioactivity.

Nuclear fusion works the opposite way, combining two light elements to make a heavier one. This process powers stars like our sun and releases vast amounts of energy with very little radioactivity. Since it can work with light and abundant elements like hydrogen, it has the potential to supply humanity with limitless energy for millions of years.

To put it in perspective, through nuclear fusion, a relative handful of hydrogen could produce enough energy to power 2,300 American homes annual (equivalent to about 10,000 tons of coal, the most common fuel in the world and highly polluting). A 2,000 megawatt fusion power plant would supply electricity for two million homes.

France's global nuclear fusion device a puzzle of huge parts

Despite 60 year of trying, there has been little progress in making nuclear fusion commercially viable—hopefully until now. By the time ITER is completed in 2025, we may finally come within reachable grasp of this promising energy source. In addition to being the largest research facility, it will also be the largest nuclear fusion experiment and will have the largest system of superconducting magnets.

At the heart of ITER will be Tokamak, a Russian invention that uses a powerful magnetic field to confine a hot plasma to generate fusion. While devised in the 1960s, to this day a Tokamak is the leading candidate for industrial-scale fusion—hence ITER will have one stretching 100 feet and comprised of one million parts.

Start of ITER assembly paves way for fusion energy era ...

In announcing the groundbreaking of the project today, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said the effort would unite countries around a common good. “ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future. The greatest advances in history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty. At the start it always seems that the obstacles will be greater than the will to create and progress. ITER belongs to this spirit of discovery, of ambition, with the idea that, thanks to science, tomorrow may indeed be better than yesterday.”

Good to see the world still managing to stick together for something this big and consequential. A heartening display of our species’ potential.

World Day Against Trafficking

Today is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, which like all international days, is intended to raise public awareness about global problems—few of which are as pervasive and universally revolting as human trafficking.

The graphic below from the United Nations does an excellent job of revealing the many forms and contexts of human trafficking, most of which is driven by sexual exploitation. The focus on Jeffery Epstein and his despicable ilk risks narrowing or sensationalizing a crime that is shockingly far more common, in all segments of society, often right in front of us.

Image may contain: text that says 'MEANS ACT Recruitment Transport Transfer bouring Receipt of persons PURPOSE Exploitation, Exploitat induding Prostitution of others Sexual exploitation Forced labour Threat or use offorce Coercion Abduction Fraud Deception Abuse of power or ulnerability Giving payments.or benefits TRAFFICKING Slavery.or similar practices Removalo organs Other types.of exploitation'

Traffickers and their clients come from every background and have been outed in virtually every industry, from pornography to sports. Many are outwardly normal or even likable; some are rich and powerful, but many are not. Plenty of them are sleazy or creepy, but many of them are popular and even respectable members of their community or society as a whole. Their victims could seem like willing friends, partners, or employees, and may even be manipulated into believing they are.

All these factors make this scourge of humanity harder to fight. We would all do well to be vigilant and look beyond the narrower and more sensationalist forms this crime can take; it’s a lot closer to us than we think.

The Japanese Diplomat who Saved Thousands from the Nazis

On this day in 1940, Japanese diplomat Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara and his Yukio began helping write and issue visas to help Jews flee certain death in the Second World War.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, suit and indoor

As Japan’s vice consul in Lithuania, Sugihara risked his career and his life to help the hundreds of Jewish refugees that came to his consulate desperately seeking a visa to travel to Japan. Unsurprisingly, the hyper-nationalist Japanese Empire had very strict immigration procedures, requiring applicants to pay large fees and to have a third destination lined up to exit Japan. The dutiful Sugihara contacted the Foreign Ministry three times for instructions, being told each time that he could not issue the visas.

Aware of the mounting danger Jews faced, Sugihara ignored his superiors and issued ten-day visas to Jews. This level of disobedience was highly unusual—and risky—within the stringent culture of the militaristic Japanese government. With the Soviet Union occupying Lithuania—though not yet at war with Japan—he persuaded Soviet officials to allow Jews to travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would take them to the Pacific near Japan.

He reportedly spent 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas, often with Yukio’s help, producing a typical month’s worth of transit documents daily. These were to heads of households, which allowed entire families to leave via a single visa. The exceedingly polite diplomat had the refugees call him “Sempo”, a variation of his name that was easier for them to pronounce.

After a couple of months, Sugihara had to leave his post, as the consulate was to be closed. He was witnessed frantically writing visas while going from his hotel to the train station. As he prepared to depart, he told those around him “Please forgive me, I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best” and bowed deeply. Having run out of paper, he desperately used blank sheets of paper with only a consulate seal and his signature Even as the train was leaving, he flung visas out the window.

There was never any official retaliation to Sugihara’s actions by the Japanese government. In 1984, he was recognized as a Righteous Among Nations for his rescue efforts. In 1985, a year before his death, he was asked why he disobeyed his orders and issued visas until the very end:

“Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.

People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”

As the New York Times points out in a wonderful profile of him, Sugihara’s character is par for the course of those “righteous among nations” who went above and beyond to save complete strangers.

Research on those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust shows that many exhibited a streak of independence from an early age. Sugihara was unconventional in a society known for prizing conformity. His father insisted that his son, a top student, become a doctor. But Sugihara wanted to study languages and travel and immerse himself in literature. Forced to sit for the medical exam, he left the entire answer sheet blank. The same willfulness was on display when he entered the diplomatic corps and, as vice minister of the Foreign Affairs Department for Japan in Manchuria in 1934, resigned in protest of the Japanese treatment of the Chinese.

A second characteristic of such heroes and heroines, as the psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes, is “that the very same situations that inflame the hostile imagination in some people, making them villains, can also instill the heroic imagination in other people, prompting them to perform heroic deeds.” While the world around him disregarded the plight of the Jews, Sugihara was unable to ignore their desperation.

[…]

Mr. Zimbardo calls the capacity to act differently the “heroic imagination,” a focus on one’s duty to help and protect others. This ability is exceptional, but the people who have it are often understated. Years after the war, Sugihara spoke about his actions as natural: “We had thousands of people hanging around the windows of our residence,” he said in a 1977 interview. “There was no other way.”

As many as 6,000 people were saved by the Sugiharas, and perhaps 100,000 are alive today because of his boundless heroic imagination. The world is all the better and more alive because of it.

The Grand Coalition of the Korean War

Yesterday marked the 67th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement, which officially ended hostilities between North and South Korea and their allies. Up to that point, the three-year conflict had claimed 3-4 million lives, most of them civilians.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, the war was technically fought by the United Nations; the U.N. Security Council authorized the creation of “U.N. Command” that would lead a multinational force to repel the North Korean invasion of the South. To this day, recovered bodies of foreign troops (including from the U.S.) are draped in the U.N. flag. The U.N. Command remains operational, albeit mostly to observe the truce.

Nearly 2 million troops from 21 countries participated in the U.N. operation, with dozens more providing support of some kind. Participants ranged from major powers like the U.S., U.K., and France, to Colombia, Ethiopia, and Turkey. Nevertheless, 90% of foreign combatants were American, and the U.S. doubtless played the leading role, though troops from other countries are known to have performed well and decisively. When one includes financial and material support, two thirds of all U.N. members at the time participated.

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South Koreans remain grateful to the nations that came to their aid, as evidenced by yesterday’s U.N. Forces Participation Day, which coincides with the commemoration of the armistice agreement. A Korean honor held the flags of each country that sent combat troops; to this day, they enjoy heightened diplomatic and commercial relations, and their nationals (especially descendants of Korean War veterans) are eligible for a special work and student visa. Korean legislators recently passed the Act on the Dignity and Honor of U.N. Korean War Veterans to further “enhance cooperation and friendly relations” with these nations.

Kim Jong Gun: North Korean generals pose like gangsters alongside ...

The War Memorial of Korea even revamped its Korean War exhibits to provide a “grander highlight” the role of the U.N. and all 63 countries that assisted the South in some way. A sample uniform of India’s medical corps is displayed with equal prominence to their American and Korean counterparts. Every nation that assisted in some way is given credit.

Korean War Memorial exhibit

Having begun in 1950, the Korean War became overshadowed by the Second World War, and just years later by the Vietnam War. There is still no peace treaty between the two sides, as the agreement merely called for a ceasefire “until a final peaceful settlement is achieved”. But as the Wilson Center points out, this “forgotten war” and its uniquely multinational nature has left legacy on the world:

The necessity for reexamining the composition, duration, and the impact of the Korean War UN coalition is more apparent when we consider that it was the first UN peace enforcement operation, the aggressive and muscular counterpart to peacekeeping operations. Its importance lies in its success. As Jiyul Kim stated in his Ashgate chapter, “the perception lingers that the UN coalition was more a political symbol of international solidarity than of a substantive military organization…the UN coalition played a key role in the outcome of crucial battles and campaigns and thus the course of the war…but…the greatest legacy of the UN coalition was its impact in resolving conflicts after the Korean War, for it established the enduring principle that the UN has a key political and military role in resolving conflicts through peace enforcement and peacekeeping operations.