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Islands of Immunity

Why paranoid island states have done the best when it comes to fighting COVID-19.

By , the founder and managing partner of FutureMap, and
An aerial view of Gili Trawangan island near Lombok Island, Indonesia.
An aerial view of Gili Trawangan island near Lombok Island, Indonesia. Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

SINGAPORE and LOMBOK ISLAND, Indonesia—“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent,” poet John Donne famously wrote. But oh, how many of us would wish to live on an island detached from any continent today—especially if that island is Singapore, Taiwan, or one of the many making 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, isolation of vulnerable populations, and other measures were crucial to suppressing the virus in all three places.

The varying locations of these three island nations show that it is not a particular geography that has succeeded but rather a particular geology: the fact of being an island. Beyond this, it’s essential to be hypercautious—as Ireland has been for the most part—rather than flippant—like the larger island next door—or just ill-prepared for the virus’s pugnacious surges, like in Cuba and Sri Lanka where COVID-19 has returned with a vengeance. Even as the coronavirus’s destructive march continues, there is one clear conclusion policymakers can draw: Paranoid islands have been, and will continue to be, the safest places on Earth well into the future.

SINGAPORE and LOMBOK ISLAND, Indonesia—“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent,” poet John Donne famously wrote. But oh, how many of us would wish to live on an island detached from any continent today—especially if that island is Singapore, Taiwan, or one of the many making 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, isolation of vulnerable populations, and other measures were crucial to suppressing the virus in all three places.

The varying locations of these three island nations show that it is not a particular geography that has succeeded but rather a particular geology: the fact of being an island. Beyond this, it’s essential to be hypercautious—as Ireland has been for the most part—rather than flippant—like the larger island next door—or just ill-prepared for the virus’s pugnacious surges, like in Cuba and Sri Lanka where COVID-19 has returned with a vengeance. Even as the coronavirus’s destructive march continues, there is one clear conclusion policymakers can draw: Paranoid islands have been, and will continue to be, the safest places on Earth well into the future.

Paranoid islands have been, and will continue to be, the safest places on Earth well into the future.

One cannot account for their success by generalizing about their size or type of government. The island states that have managed the pandemic well have populations from around 10,000 people in Nauru to more than 100 million people in Japan. Large island nations such as Japan and Australia have grappled with serious outbreaks but have returned to some degree of normalcy. So has South Korea, which—due to its airtight border with North Korea—is functionally an island as well despite being part of a peninsula. Israel is also in many ways a geopolitical island, and its enduring focus on self-preservation has served it well as it has become a global role model in vaccine deployment. (Though for absolute security against new variants and renewed spread, it would need to vaccinate all Palestinians in the West Bank as well.)

All three have fared far better than Great Britain, where COVID-19 continues to ravage the country. Britain’s staggering mismanagement is a stark reminder that being a democratic island still isn’t good enough. Those island democracies that have overcome COVID-19 have acted much more like technocratic Singapore, where policies are designed by doctors who hold prominent positions in government and supported by a population that remembers the ravaging SARS epidemic of 2003.

The common denominator then isn’t solely being surrounded by the sea or a belief in freedom but in the precautionary principle: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Anyone who’s ever landed at Auckland or Christchurch International Airport knows paranoia is what keeps New Zealand safe. Just count the number of dogs that sniff you as you transit from the airplane through passport control and customs and the number of loudspeaker warnings to dispose of any food or organic materials.

Earlier this month at Auckland Airport, a Chinese woman was arrested 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 accounting for most of its exports, even a mildly unwelcome bacterium could ravage New Zealand’s precious ecosystem. No wonder it has pulled up the drawbridge, effectively closing itself off to foreign visitors for the remainder of 2021.

Singapore’s population is similar to New Zealand’s, but its circumstances have been far trickier. It is one of the world’s most densely populated nations, is almost entirely dependent on food imports, has one of the world’s busiest airports with thousands of daily arrivals (especially from China), and depends on migrant labor from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. Simply put: No country is less capable of shutting out the world than tiny, trade-dependent Singapore.

The city-state island had a rough early ride with COVID-19, including significant outbreaks among migrant workers in their cramped dormitories, but has enjoyed nearly coronavirus-free daily life since October 2020. Indeed, it has become a global public health provider for the daily arrival of hundreds of individuals and families returning or moving to Singapore on one-way tickets, dozens of them infected and recuperating in quarantine before entering mainstream society.

FP INSIDER'S COVID-19 INDEX outlines major bottlenecks affecting the global vaccine roll-out and profiles actions governments are taking around the world to manage the ongoing crisis.

FP INSIDER’S COVID-19 INDEX outlines major bottlenecks affecting the global vaccine roll-out and profiles actions governments are taking around the world to manage the ongoing crisis. Learn more

Some islands are blessed both by geology and geography. By August 2020, many of the far-flung islands of the South Pacific—such as Palau, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Samoa, Vanuatu, and Tonga—still had zero coronavirus infections. Tourism jobs have been lost, but many of these islands are opening travel bubbles with New Zealand. Jack Dorsey has been running Twitter from French Polynesia while Larry Page’s superyacht was spotted in Fiji, which has branded itself as a virus-free oasis for the super-rich.

But for the majority of islands that are tightly connected to their neighbors and beyond, complacency has been fatal. The tiny Mediterranean island Malta has built a thriving medical tourism industry, but British and Italian travelers and their undisciplined behavior have caused a COVID-19 spike of several hundred new daily infections.

Across Indonesia’s thousands of islands, cases are spiking in densely populated Java, especially around Jakarta, as well as in those places in the archipelago most closely connected to Java via flights such as East Kalimantan, the epicenter of Indonesia’s palm oil industry and home to its much-ballyhooed new capital, as well as Makassar in South Sulawesi.

Bali, which has sought to keep tourism alive and recruit millennial remote workers, has also been hit hard, while the pandemic has been suppressed in more cautious and self-sufficient islands like Lombok. Although some of this is due to the good fortune of seeing fewer visitors even in normal times, not actively courting outside tourists and enforcing masks and social distancing have played important roles as well.

Even countries with a track record of robust governance cannot be paranoid enough. Vietnam has been held up since September 2020 as a remarkable case study in how a poor and densely populated country sharing a border with China could completely block out COVID-19 through total obedience to strict lockdowns. But suddenly, after several infection-free months, there have been significant outbreaks in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang, led in part through the arrival of the more contagious variant first identified in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, reliable fortress states such as Switzerland have drastically underperformed 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 allowed each canton to determine its own lockdown policy with many provinces opting to allow ski resorts to remain open. Many of its after-ski fondue dinners and champagne parties have become superspreader events. Switzerland has, simply put, chosen to prioritize business as usual, at enormous cost to its health care system.

If you cannot move to a paranoid island, you can at least urge your non-island to start acting like one. The United States is a full year behind much of the world in COVID-19-testing and mask-wearing requirements that constitute the most basic levels of commitment to preserving the lives of one’s neighbors. The country’s hopes of vaccinating its way out of a devastating pandemic represent a real-life race between 21st-century science and the ancient power of viral mutation. Meanwhile in China, where the coronavirus bat first flapped its wings, entire new cities are being built to enable rapid lockdowns with water, food, and energy self-sufficiency. In our hyperconnected world, only the paranoid survive.

Parag Khanna is the founder and managing partner of FutureMap and the author of the book MOVE: The Forces Uprooting Us. Twitter: @paragkhanna

Spencer Wells is the founder of the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project and author of The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey and Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project. Twitter: @spwells

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