The only countries in the world that have effectively contained COVID-19 have been in high-income East Asia. Despite strong travel links and economic ties to Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong staved off the mass infection now afflicting Europe and the US through early deployment of social distancing measures (including public mask-wearing and mandatory quarantine of infected individuals) and travel restrictions. South Korea contained its outbreak “curve”–the worst in the world in February–through extensive testing, followed by contact tracing (through both personal interviews and GPS-based mobile tracking) of positive cases.
The examples are not merely informative but instructive. While infection rates slow in most of Europe and United States, suggesting containment in the near future, removing lock-downs on either side of the Atlantic will be incredibly risky unless leaders follow East Asia’s lead in detecting and isolating infected individuals.
Unfortunately, while both Europe and the US seek to emulate South Korea’s drive-thru testing procedure, much of European and US public opinion seems skeptical about the adoption of mobile contact tracing used in South Korea and Taiwan. A perceived cultural difference pops up repeatedly in the skeptics’ arguments.
For instance, Vox’s Ezra Klein casts doubt on a Harvard University plan to develop a nationwide tracking app (of positive test results) by acknowledging that “while similar efforts have borne fruit in Singapore and South Korea, the US is a very different country, with a more mistrustful, individualistic culture.” A BBC article on the subject contrasts western “liberal democracies” with countries like “China, Singapore and South Korea”, implying that mobile contact tracing is more acceptable in the autocratic “East” than in the democratic “West.”
Its not just mobile contact tracing which encounters this dismissive mindset. Renee C. Wurth, a Public Health Professor at Northwestern University, warns that East Asian societies’ widespread face mask use does not make this an essential strategy for combating COVID-19 in the west: Rather, it is Asia’s “community-oriented cultures,” that are the true key to their success.
By insisting that Asian countries are fundamentally different from the West, these dismissals of Asian policy successes reveal the tenacious persistence of Orientalist stereotypes about East Asia.
Since the time of Marco Polo, the Western World has perceived East Asia as irredeemably “exotic” and “mysterious.”
The image of the Orient as a threatening and monolithic “Other”–replete with strange foods, secretive rituals and persons who were not quite human–took hold over the centuries. This construct, which post-colonial scholars refer to as Orientalism, reached its zenith at the end of the 19th-century, when Western Powers encroached on East Asia.
Social Scientists developed grand theories, based on ecology (e.g. Marx’ “Oriental Despotism” hypothesis, which held that control of irrigation systems led to stagnant bureaucracies in Eastern polities) or culture (e.g. Confucianism as a cause of China’s decline) to explain Europe’s advancement relative to East Asia. Although objective on the surface, such theories implicitly justified Western hegemony relative to East Asia, and portrayed Asia as an “ontologically-different entity” (in the words of one historian) from the West-the former being fundamentally incomparable to the latter and requiring neither depth or nuance in analysis.
ln popular culture, the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War fueled fears of a “Yellow Peril”-an invasion of Europe by barbaric hordes. In the United States, opponents of Chinese immigration to California spread lurid rumors of Chinese consuming rats and other unsavory foodstuffs.
Early reporting on COVID-19’s origins at a wet market revealed the endurance of Orientalist stereotype of Chinese consumption of exotic foods.
And as Asian countries have emerged at the forefront of global efforts to combat COVID-19, Orientalism lurks beneath the surface of western public opinion’s disregard for their policy successes.
For instance, Wurth’s opinion on the irrelevance East Asian mask-wearing, borrows from the trope that Confucian culture is a determining factor in the region’s mores. Instead of using the concept to explain East Asian stagnation, she touts it as a reason for the region’s advancement. Nevertheless, the concept still renders the region as “foreign,” albeit for the purpose of drawing policy best practices.
Moreover, Wurth, Klein and other writers have tended to describe East Asian countries’ policy success in collective terms, ignoring vast differences in policy and society. Discussing Singapore, a one-party state, and South Korea, a democratic presidential republic, in the same breath makes as little sense as equating the United Kingdom with Franco-era Spain. And yet, the fact that East Asia is not Europe permits such abstraction.
Nuances and details in East Asian policies are also ignored. The Toronto Star quotes an expert saying that South Korean contract tracing would “never work” in a western democracy, ignoring the fact that a) South Korea is a democracy and b) contact tracing app has also raised privacy concerns within South Korea. I have heard similar statements made by Twitter users:
Finally, Atlantic Magazine has published profiles in courage on Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern but none on (South Korean President) Moon Jae-in or (Taiwanese President) Tsai Ing-Wen (the latter has earned a paragraph in an article on female leadership in combating COVID).
The hard truth is that Westerners still regard even developed Alien countries as alien: Robotic marvels that can earn a plaudit or two but never be seriously emulated or examined.
To be clear, this is not just a media issue (and there are some great articles like this WIRED one on Taiwan). Nor did this problem suddenly reappear with COVID-19. Over the years, I have received strange looks and remarks when I point to Japan as an example for American commuter rail planning.
But now the stakes are much higher.
If we (in the United States and Europe) don’t want to contend with a two-year lockdown or hundreds of thousands of more deaths, we will have to acknowledge some hard truths:
- South Korea is the only country in the world to have stamped out a large-scale (1000+) COVID-19 outbreak. There is no excuse for throwing out examples like New Zealand (which instituted a lockdown when there were only 100 cases) or Germany (which-despite mass testing-has over 100,000 cases and 5,000 diseases, with no signs of letting down).
- Stamping out COVID demands that Western Countries evaluate South Korea’s (and Taiwan’s and even Vietnam’s) policies in detail and determine how they can legally design and implement such policies.
- The belief that the West is the standard-bearer of progress, and therefore has nothing to learn from culturally- or geographically-distinct regions, is no longer true. Its high time we face up.