SINGAPORE and LOMBOK ISLAND, Indonesia – “No one is an island in itself; Every man is a piece of the continent, ”wrote the poet John Donne. But oh, how many of us today would want to live on an island that is separated from a continent – especially if that island is Singapore, Taiwan, or one of the many that make up New Zealand?
These three island nations have effectively defeated COVID-19 despite their urban population density, proximity to China, and robust international connectivity. Luck was clearly not on their side – but paranoia was. Robust contact tracing, strict lockdowns, enforced quarantines, isolating vulnerable populations, and other measures were critical to suppressing the virus in all three locations.
The different locations of these three island states show that it was not a certain geography that succeeded, but a certain geology: the fact of being an island. Additionally, it’s important to be overly cautious – like Ireland for the most part – and not funky like the bigger island next door – or just poorly prepared for the combative waves of the virus, like in Cuba and Sri Lanka, where COVID-19 is rampant Power returned. Even if the devastating march of the coronavirus continues, there is one clear conclusion for policy makers to draw: Paranoid islands have been and will continue to be the safest places on earth.
One cannot explain their success by generalizing their size or type of government. The island states that have weathered the pandemic well have populations ranging from around 10,000 people in Nauru to more than 100 million people in Japan. Large island nations like Japan and Australia have grappled with severe outbreaks but have returned to some degree of normalcy. This also applies to South Korea, which due to its airtight border with North Korea is also functionally an island, although it is part of a peninsula. Israel is also a geopolitical island in many ways, and its continued focus on self-preservation has served it well as it has become a global role model in vaccine use. (To ensure absolute security against new variants and re-spread, however, all Palestinians in the West Bank would also have to be vaccinated.)
All three have fared far better than the UK, where COVID-19 continues to devastate the country. Britain’s dizzying mismanagement is a stark reminder that being a democratic island is still not good enough. These island democracies that have overcome COVID-19 have acted much more like technocratic Singapore, where policies are drawn up by doctors in prominent government positions and backed by a population that remembers the devastating SARS epidemic of 2003 .
The common denominator is then not just surrounded by the sea or the belief in freedom, but the precautionary principle: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Anyone who has ever landed in Auckland or Christchurch International Airport knows that paranoia keeps New Zealand safe. Just count the number of dogs you sniffed through passport control and customs as you passed the plane, and the number of speaker warnings to dispose of food or organic materials.
Earlier this month, a Chinese woman was arrested at Auckland Airport for attempting to smuggle rare plants and seeds into the country by strapping them to her body. With 26 million sheep and only around 5 million people and agriculture making up the bulk of their exports, even a mildly undesirable bacterium could devastate New Zealand’s precious ecosystem. No wonder it pulled up the drawbridge and effectively closed off to foreign visitors for the remainder of 2021.
Singapore’s population is similar to New Zealand’s, but the circumstances were far more difficult. It is one of the most densely populated nations in the world, relies almost entirely on food imports, has one of the busiest airports in the world with thousands of daily arrivals (especially from China), and relies on migrant workers from Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Put simply, no country is less able to shut out the world than tiny, trade-dependent Singapore.
The city-state city has had a tough early ride with COVID-19, including significant outbreaks among migrant workers in their cramped dormitories, but has enjoyed a nearly coronavirus-free daily life since October 2020. In fact, it has grown into a global healthcare provider for the daily arrival of hundreds of individuals and families returning or moving to Singapore on one-way tickets, dozens of whom are infected and are recovering in quarantine before making their way into the mainstream – Enter society.
Some islands are blessed both geologically and geographically. As of August 2020, many of the distant islands of the South Pacific – such as Palau, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Samoa, Vanuatu and Tonga – had not yet had coronavirus infections. Tourism jobs have been lost, but many of these islands open travel bubbles with New Zealand. Jack Dorsey ran Twitter from French Polynesia while Larry Page’s superyacht was discovered in Fiji, branding itself as a virus-free haven for the super-rich.
But for the majority of the islands, closely connected to their neighbors and beyond, complacency has been fatal. The tiny Mediterranean island of Malta has built a thriving medical tourism industry, but British and Italian travelers and their undisciplined behavior have caused a COVID-19 surge of several hundred new infections each day.
Indonesia’s thousands of islands have cases of densely populated Java, particularly Jakarta, as well as locations in the archipelago most closely linked to Java via flights such as East Kalimantan, the epicenter of Indonesia’s palm oil industry and home to its home much insulted new capital and Makassar in South Sulawesi.
Bali, which has tried to keep tourism alive and recruiting millennial remote workers, has also been hit hard while the pandemic has been suppressed on more cautious and self-sufficient islands like Lombok. Although part of this is down to the luck of seeing fewer visitors even during normal times, inactive advertising to outside tourists and the enforcement of masks and social distancing have also played an important role.
Even countries with a track record of robust governance cannot be paranoid enough. Vietnam has been held up as a notable case study since September 2020 of how a poor and densely populated country sharing a border with China could completely rule out COVID-19 through complete obedience to strict lockdowns. But suddenly, after several months of infection-free conditions, there were significant outbreaks in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang, partly caused by the arrival of the contagious variant first identified in the UK. In the meantime, reliable fortress states like Switzerland have drastically undercut their disciplined reputation.
After the financial crisis more than a decade ago, the country seriously considered militarizing its borders to keep out potential hordes of unemployed Italians and Greeks. And yet, in the name of democratic federalism, it has enabled each canton to set its own lockdown policy, with many provinces choosing to keep ski resorts open. Many of his after-ski fondue dinners and champagne parties have become super-spreader events. Simply put, Switzerland has chosen to prioritize normal business, which is a huge cost to the healthcare system.
If you can’t move to a paranoid island, at least you can push your non-island to act like one. The United States is a full year behind much of the world when it comes to COVID-19 testing and wearing masks, which are the most basic level of commitment to preserving the lives of neighbors. The country’s hopes of vaccinating itself out of a devastating pandemic are a real race between 21st century science and the ancient force of virus mutation. Meanwhile, in China, where the coronavirus bat first flapped its wings, brand new cities are being built to provide rapid self-sufficiency in water, food and energy. In our hyperconnected world, only the paranoids survive.