Western countries only seem capable of social distancing when their governments have forced them

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  • As governments in Western countries urge people to stay inside and practice social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus, pictures on social media still show busy streets and parks.
  • Italy, France, Britain, and the US have been introducing stricter measures after citizens did not follow advice to stay in their homes.
  • In contrast, social-distancing measures in many Asian countries appear to have been more successful.
  • Many of those countries were caught up in the 2003 SARS epidemic, so the governments had invested in tools to fight viruses and people had experienced virus-induced isolation in the past.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Governments and health experts around the world have overwhelmingly warned that self-isolation and social-distancing are the best ways to stem the coronavirus outbreak.

But people in Western countries have so far appeared incapable of following social-distancing guidance without being forced to do so, leading to governments rolling out increasingly stricter measures and punishments to keep people apart.
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Authorities have said that they had no other choice but to mete out those new rules and punishments as pictures emerged of packed businesses, streets, parks, and events.

Western countries keep bringing in stricter and stricter measures as people keep going outside and gathering

France, which now has the fifth-highest number of deaths in the world, first responded to the crisis by closing schools, cafes, restaurants and shops - aside from those that sold food.

Days later, after people continued to congregate in parks and outside cafes, the government announced a 15-day lockdown on March 18.
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That lockdown, which is now so strict that people needed a form to justify their reason for being outside, was prompted by what French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said was people not following government guidance: "We have seen too many people in cafes and restaurants."

Here is what the city looked like after France first urged people to stay home:
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France coronavirus

Italy, the epicenter of the outbreak, has also had to implement increasingly stricter measures as its coronavirus death toll climbed up. On Sunday, the government banned travel inside the country and shut even more businesses.

Video footage has shown mayors across the country directly addressing citizens and even confronting them outside, desperately pleading people to stay indoors.

Germany banned meetings of more than two people outside from Sunday, with Chancellor Angela Merkel saying: "Our own behavior is currently the most effective antidote we have."
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In the UK, senior government sources told The Times of London that a full lockdown of the country is "inevitable" after images of people crowding to public spaces spread on social media.

 

Emyr Williams, the Director of Land Management at Snowdonia National Park Authority in Wales, said the park saw unprecedented visitor levels over the weekend.
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"We have experienced the busiest visitor day in living memory. The area has been overwhelmed with visitors," he said, according to Reuters.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson hinted at further measures in a Sunday press conference, saying people need to observe social distancing. "If people can't do that, won't do that, don't do that, we will, of course, have to bring in tougher measures."
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But people there also said the government has produced more confusing messaging than anywhere else, having allowed people to keep going outside and permitting businesses, like pubs, to continue operating even after most other Euroepan countries had started locking down.

People stand outside a pub in Soho as the number of coronavirus cases grow around the world. London, Britain, March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
And Ireland - which has not implemented a full lockdown but closed pubs and schools last week - urged people to stay indoors, saying that some people and businesses have not been following the orders.
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The country's health minister said some pubs have stayed open, and that they might have their alcohol licence reviewed. "We will never forget those who risked the health of our people," Simon Harris said.

And as multiple US state authorities have ordered people to stay at home, some have criticized people for not doing so. Multiple images from across the US showed people crowding into parks across the weekend.

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York on Sunday described packed New York City parks as "a density level ... that is wholly inappropriate."
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"You would think there was nothing going on. ... I don't know what I'm saying that people don't get," he said.

Many countries who responded quicker to social-distancing measures had already been through SARS

China, where the coronavirus broke out, appears now to have gotten the virus spread under of control - though people returning to the country with the virus now pose a new threat.

And China's neighboring countries, which were first to report cases outside China, have so far slowed the spread more successfully than the Western countries now grappling with the virus.
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South Korea, which at one point had the more cases than Italy, appears to have massively slowed the virus, with the number of new cases falling most days.

And Taiwan on Monday had reported just 195 cases and two deaths, despite being one of the first places to report a positive patient.

While these countries all used a variety of techniques, they all implemented strict social-distancing measures early, and people largely followed them.
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Wuhan coronavirus
China's one-party, authoritarian system, for example, allowed it to react to such an outbreak faster and stronger, and with more ability to control the population.Meanwhile, South Korea and Taiwan - both democracies - were able to respond quickly to the disease due to historical reasons.
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How China, its neighboring countries, and the World Health Organization have responded to the coronavirus have largely been informed by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, which killed 774 people and infected more than 8,000 between November 2002 and July 2003.

Though there were SARS cases around the world, Asia bore the brunt of the crisis.

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This not only pushed countries to invest in better virus testing and containment systems, but also prepared populations for such periods of isolation and greater hygiene practices.

Thomas R. Frieden, a former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The New York Times about China: "They saw what SARS did and they prepared for the next one."

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

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