Did Japan Beat COVID-19 with a Decentralized Response?

Dan Sanchez – June 3, 2020

Yesterday [May 25], Japan’s nationwide state of emergency was officially lifted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who declared COVID-19 to be under control in the country.

In his announcement of the move, Abe said, “Recently, new infection cases have fallen below 50 for the entire nation, and what was once nearly 10,000 hospitalized cases — that has now fallen below 2,000.”

Japan’s success against the disease may be surprising to pundits who have harshly criticized Japan’s central government over its response to the pandemic, characterizing it as insufficiently aggressive.

“No restrictions were placed on residents’ movements,” reports Bloomberg News,

and businesses from restaurants to hairdressers stayed open. No high-tech apps that tracked people’s movements were deployed. The country doesn’t have a center for disease control. And even as nations were exhorted to “test, test, test,” Japan has tested just 0.2 percent of its population—one of the lowest rates among developed countries.

If Japan’s enviable results are not due to any sweeping central government interventions, what is the explanation?

There is no widespread agreement on this, and many factors have been cited. Bloomberg News reported that none of the experts they consulted, “could point to a singular policy package that could be replicated in other countries.” But they did praise a particular decentralized response in Japan for making a huge difference (emphasis added):

An early grassroots response to rising infections was crucial. While the central government has been criticized for its slow policy steps, experts praise the role of Japan’s contact tracers, which swung into action after the first infections were found in January. The fast response was enabled by one of Japan’s inbuilt advantages — its public health centers, which in 2018 employed more than half of 50,000 public health nurses who are experienced in infection tracing. In normal times, these nurses would be tracking down more common infections such as influenza and tuberculosis. (…)

While countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. are just beginning to hire and train contact tracers as they attempt to reopen their economies, Japan has been tracking the movement of the disease since the first handful of cases were found. These local experts focused on tackling so-called clusters, or groups of infections from a single location such as clubs or hospitals, to contain cases before they got out of control.

“Many people say we don’t have a Centers for Disease Control in Japan,” said Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor of infection control at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, citing a frequently held complaint about Japan’s infection management. “But the public health center is a kind of local CDC.”

What the complainers have pointed to as a weakness turned out to be a strength. Japan’s decentralized public health centers have seemed to outperform America’s monolithic Center for Disease Control, which has made egregious errors concerning the pandemic that have had sweeping and deadly ramifications.

Rather than uniform, top-down, centralized, and nationwide policies, the Japanese people mostly resorted to diverse, bottom-up, decentralized, and local responses and achieved much better results than many countries that imposed lockdowns and other draconian measures.

As the renowned economist F.A. Hayek stressed, local knowledge, or as he put it, “knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances” is indispensable for solving real-world problems.

Central planning is doomed to failure because central planners cannot possibly grasp the dispersed billions of bits of local knowledge that are pertinent to their decisions. And responses that may be suitable to one locale may be disastrous in another. Moreover, centralized systems are exposed to a single point of failure. An error at the top creates suffering throughout.

This is why the policies of such mega-bureaucracies as the CDC, national and state executive branches, and the World Health Organization have proven to be so out-of-touch and bungling in their responses to the spread of COVID-19.

As Hayek explained in “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” only local actors have direct access to local knowledge, and only a decentralized network of local actors can hope to integrate and process that vast amount of knowledge in a way that results in effective society-wide coordination and problem-solving.

This may be why the interplay of the locally-driven efforts of Japan’s public health centers, as well as that of non-locked-down businesses and individuals, managed to get a complex pandemic “under control.”

This may be baffling to those for whom “control” can only be a top-down phenomenon. But, for the above reasons, the more tightly we try to centralize control, the more things tend to get out of control.

The Japanese central government did not “take control” in the wake of COVID-19, whether intentionally or accidentally. But the Japanese people did not wander aimlessly as a result. Instead, the lack of central direction left space for local actors to take initiative. The Japanese people rose to both the challenge and the opportunity and achieved heroic results.

May their experience be a lesson to other nations around the world.

Originally published at Fee.org. Dan Sanchez is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor of FEE.org.

Image credit: en.Kremlin.ru | CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

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