Commentary: Sweden and Japan are paying the price for thinking they had COVID-19 exceptionalism

Dec 19, 2020 | 🚀 Fathership

Both governments have based their strategies on voluntarism, self-responsibility, and perhaps most importantly, the exceptional nature of their populations, says an observer.

LUND, Sweden: One of the most striking things about the COVID-19 pandemic is just how dramatically different the responses have been from country to country.

In early 2020, when little was known about the virus, this difference was unsurprising. Today, with tens of thousands of research articles and cases of best practice to learn from, one would expect to see more convergence.

And yet some countries continue to resist popular strategies, such as lockdowns, and insist on going their own way – with varying degrees of success.

Two such countries are Sweden and Japan, which in 2020 have forged a different path to their neighbours on coronavirus and attributed their early successes to the assumed advantages of an inherent national character.

But today, both seem to be paying the price.


One factor that features in both the Japanese and Swedish responses is that of national exceptionalism. By exceptionalism I mean the understanding among a population that “we” are not only distinct from the rest, but in some way also superior.

Leaders in both countries have emphasised that their constitutions prevent violations of civil liberties, such as lockdowns and fines.

Instead, both governments have based their strategies on voluntarism, self-responsibility, and perhaps most importantly, the exceptional nature of their populations.

Sweden, famously, has left bars, restaurants and gyms open throughout the pandemic, as well as not requiring masks in any public settings. In fact, the official position in Sweden is still that masks may do more to increase the spread of COVID-19, rather than reduce it.

This view was common in many European countries at the start of the pandemic, but other governments quickly changed their minds and mandated mask-wearing in public places.

Like Sweden, Japan took the “no lockdown” route and refrained from imposing mandatory restrictions – though it closed its borders earlier this year. Unlike Sweden, however, virtually everyone in Japan voluntarily wears a mask, and the government engages in aggressive contact-tracing.

Still, in July, Japan implemented a domestic tourism campaign, Go To Travel, to encourage people to spend money and boost the economy.

It’s now feared that this campaign, which saw the government subsidise people’s domestic tourist trips, could be responsible for driving the country’s third wave.


Japanese exceptionalism was evident in the rhetoric used to explain the country’s relative success in mitigating both the first and second waves. In April, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was quick to hail the success of the Japan model, which succeeded “in a characteristically Japanese way”.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Asō was more explicitly nationalist: His explanation was that Japan’s mindo was higher than the rest. Mindo, loosely translated as “quality of people”, is associated with Japan’s imperial era, when the Japanese saw themselves standing atop a civilizational hierarchy of Asian people.

This harks back to the discourse on Japanese exceptionalism, nihonjinron, which seeks to account for Japan’s uniqueness. All countries are unique, so it goes, but Japan is uniquely unique – and a little superior too.+

The right-wing nationalist daily newspaper Sankei Shimbun even went as far to cite Japanese Shinto rituals and “the experience and wisdom of our ancestors” as explaining Japan’s success.

Exceptionalism in the Japanese case was of the particular kind: Japan succeeded thanks to the uniqueness of Japanese culture and cleanliness, the Japanese model approach would not work in other countries.

However, exceptionalism and hubris are closely related, and the third wave engulfing Japan today under new prime minister Yoshihide Suga is proving more devastating than the first two.


In Sweden, rather than implement any mandatory restrictions, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven called on the populace to use their folkvett – a blend of good manners, morality, and common sense that is supposed to be innate to all good Swedes – to follow the voluntary recommendations.

Meanwhile, Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist and architect of the country’s strategy, described the lockdowns in neighbouring countries as “mad” and “ridiculous”.

Johan Giescke, Tegnell’s mentor, close confidant, and consultant adviser for the Swedish Public Health Authority, was similarly outspoken: “Sweden is right” and “all the other countries are wrong”.

Both Tegnell and Giesecke declared that COVID-19 was no more dangerous than a seasonal flu, and the Public Health Authority declared – incorrectly – in April, May, and July, that Stockholm was on the verge of herd immunity.

The Swedish media followed suit and Swedes were encouraged to be “proud to live in Sweden”, and not living under the populist and draconian responses to be found in the rest of Europe. To question the strategy was to question science and rationality itself.

After 22 prominent scientists published an article raised concerns about the Swedish approach, they were ridiculed in the media. Columnists and critics such as Ida Östenberg, Victor Malm and Alex Schulman launched personal attacks, with Schulman labelling them part of the tinfoil hat brigade. Even one of Sweden’s most famous and trusted science communicator, Agnes Wold, impugned their motives.

As the death toll increased into June, after the rest of Europe (and Japan) had regained control, only the far-right Sweden Democrats dared to criticise Tegnell or the Swedish Public Health Authority.

In late July, the daily deaths in Sweden finally reached single digits. This prompted less of a sigh of relief and more of a collective pat on the back. The Swedish strategy was correct, the Swedish strategy is being praised abroad.

Indeed, it seemed that almost any favourable coverage of the Swedish strategy in the international press was newsworthy, as for example when British tabloid the Sun carried an article praising Sweden it was widely and approvingly reported on in the Swedish media.

Thus, Swedish exceptionalism was paradoxical: on one hand, it was based on the inherent folkvett of Swedes. On the other, Sweden very much touted the “Swedish strategy” as the correct scientific model from which all other states would eventually learn.


The problem for both Sweden and Japan today is exceptionalist inertia. Other states were quick to change tack in tandem with developments in the pandemic and the science explaining it.

Even as the third wave threatens to spiral out of control, the Japanese government has not cancelled Go To Travel, merely suspending it between Dec 28 and Jan 11, 2021.

Meanwhile, Swedish bars, restaurants and gyms remain open as the daily death toll continues to rise, though a new poll in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper shows trust in Tegnell is lower than ever among Swedes.

There is of course more to the COVID-19 story than national exceptionalism, and so far Japan has fared far better than Sweden and many other countries in containing its epidemic.

Still, both cases suggest that associating the success (and by extension, failure) of a public health response with an appeal to an exceptional national character can be dangerous. It can make learning from others less likely, and make changing course, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, a painful – perhaps impossible – process.

Listen to infectious disease experts discuss what a COVID-19 vaccine rollout would look like:

Source: CNA/sl

Unrepentant teen with a long list of offences is why some parents shouldn't breed

Nov 25, 2021 | 🚀 Fathership

Ralph Wee Yi Kai, a 19-year-old Singaporean man, has pleaded guilty to eight charges on Nov. 25 during his plead guilty mention before District Judge May Mesenas.

The charges include consuming weed, causing unnecessary suffering to a frog, possessing imitation tobacco products, trespassing into the rhinoceros enclosure at the Singapore Zoo, and committing mischief by damaging property, reported CNA.

Another six charges will be considered during his sentencing.

Probation is "not realistic"

Wee pleaded guilty via video link from his place in remand, where he has been since Nov. 6.

The prosecution strongly objected to a probation suitability report, noting that Wee is "beyond the control of his parents, which renders probation unsuitable", according to CNA.

The prosecution asserted that probation "is not realistic" for Wee, based on his repeated offences and conduct in court.

They cited his "blatant disregard for rules", and urged for a reformative training suitability report instead.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Melissa Lee said Wee "has a tendency to abuse drugs and alcohol", which caused him to behave aggressively towards his parents.

He also "posed a risk" to them, which led him to be admitted to the Institute of Mental Health.

"Never expected it to come to this"

Wee's defence lawyer Shashi Nathan requested for the addition of a probation suitability report, according to CNA.

Shashi maintains that his family is able to supervise Wee, and added that his client "comes from a good family" who are "able to look after him".

He said that Wee was undergoing "a severe emotional crisis" when he committed his offences, and shared that the case has also affected Wee's family, especially after their home address was released to the press.

"While Ralph understands that what he did was wrong, he never expected it to come to this," said Shashi.

Difference between probation and reformative training

Wee was ordered to go though both assessments for a probation suitability report and a reformative training report, reported Yahoo News.

Offenders who undergo probation will not have a criminal record, while reformative training, which provides a more structured environment, results in a criminal record.

What Wee's lawyer said

Wee's lawyer said his client acted out after breaking up with his girlfriend, 18, who was the one who filmed the video of Wee backflipping in the zoo.

The defence lawyer, Shashi, said Wee spiralled into an emotional crisis as a result of his break-up.

Wee is homeschooled.

The court was told Wee saw a video of a man riding a giraffe and decided to make a video in the rhino enclosure, Yahoo News reported.

The ex-girlfriend had filmed the act and posted it on her private Snapchat account.

Wee posted it on his public TikTok account and a police report was made by a zoo personnel within the same day.

Wee removed the video when he was told to do so by the police, but reposted it on Dec. 18, before being told to remove it again, claiming he thought the video had been made private when he reposted it.

Wee had also included a link in his Instagram account biography to directed to a page selling t-shirts with the words "rhino ralph".

But he denied creating the merchandise profile.

He later removed the link.

Wee will return to court on Dec. 20 for his sentencing.

Timeline of events with updated details

Oct. 9, 2020, 2:40am: Allegedly committed an act of vandalism by hitting an information panel at a bus stop in Sixth Avenue, off Bukit Timah Road, causing S$900 in damage.

Allegedly caused damage to two cars -- S$2,800 to a Mercedes-Benz and more than S$1,600 to a BMW -- in nearby Sixth Crescent.

A taxi driver passing by reported him to the police, as Wee was standing in the middle of the road with a beer bottle in hand.

Dec. 16, 2020: Wee was placed on compulsory supervision for 60 months from Dec. 16. He was required to present himself for urine tests on each Tuesday and Thursday, but failed to turn up on four occasions.

He was placed on e-tagging during this period of time, after having been charged for his earlier offences.

He had to stay at home from 10pm to 6am as part of his bail conditions.

Dec. 17, 2020, 2.40pm: Accused of trespassing into the rhinoceros enclosure and taking a video.

Dec. 18, 2020: Reposted zoo video, despite taking it down earlier after being told to do so by the police. Told to remove video again.

Dec. 24, 2020: Accused of abusing a frog, which subsequently died, by hitting a ball against it on a foosball table, causing "unnecessary pain and suffering".

The incident allegedly took place at a Sentosa Cove property.

July 2021: First hauled to court and charged with two counts of mischief, as well as one count each of vandalism and criminal trespass.

Bail was then set at S$15,000.

Aug. 6, 2021: Allegedly consumed cannabis while out on bail. Arrested at his residence and two urine samples obtained tested positive for weed. S$15,000 bail revoked.

Sep. 14, 2021: Allegedly possessed an e-vaporiser and six e-cigarette pods at a ward in the Institute of Mental Health.

Three police officers showed up at IMH, where Wee was warded, to arrest him for failing to attend court.

He was admitted to IMH due to his drug and alcohol abuse, as had acted aggressively towards his parents when they demanded the drugs from him.

He was warded in IMH due to the risk he posed to his parents.

Oct. 13, 2021: Charged with one count of drug consumption while still in remand.

Bail raised to S$20,000 and Wee was released.

While out on second bail, Wee committed a string of offences, including cutting his electronic tag, according to ST, as well as not reporting for his urine tests on a few occasions, CNA reported.

The prosecution has called for an urgent bail review hearing to have Wee's second bail revoked for the alleged fresh offences.

Oct. 26, 2021: Allegedly cut a S$100 GPS ankle tag at an address on Leedon Road at about 12:10am.

Prior to this act, Wee was upset at his father, who had asked Wee to sleep early since he had to report for his urine test in the morning.

After arguing with his father, Wee decided to leave the house, and used pliers to cut off his e-tag before cycling to his friend’s house.

Upon discovering that Wee was missing, his father called the police.

The e-tag, worth S$100, was damaged and could no longer be used.

It was found in Wee’s house.

Oct. 28, 2021: Allegedly possessed an e-cigarette pod at the Leedon Road address.

Nov. 5, 2021: Warrant of arrest issued, as Wee could not wake up to attend court.

Nov. 6, 2021: Wee arrested.

Nov. 12, 2021: Slapped with four additional charges.

Nov. 25, 2021: Pleaded guilty to consuming weed, causing unnecessary suffering to a frog, possessing imitation tobacco products, trespassing into a rhino enclosure, and committing mischief by damaging property belonging to others.

Ordered to go though assessments for a probation suitability report and a reformative training report.