By FEE MERALI
Across South-Asia, people are returning to life as usual. Pubs and restaurants are open for business, non-essential shops are once again open to customers, and the economic cogs are beginning to grind. This lies in stark contrast to the USA and many European countries, which are still experiencing high rates of infections. The second lockdown measure to be implemented across England, which was mandated on November 5th, has prompted many to question the reasons why various supposedly ‘strong’ Western countries are now flailing under the effects of Covid-19, while several Asian countries operating under authoritarian regimes, including China, Thailand, and Vietnam, have, on the whole, managed to quash the virus, and countries like South Korea and Japan have also experienced unprecedented success.
In terms of initial responses to the virus, global measures across the USA, European countries, and the Asian bloc were largely similar. Most countries implemented a national lockdown where they closed down schools, shops deemed to be non-essential, bars and restaurants, and leisure and entertainment venues. It soon became evident in the international stage that many of the afflicted Asian countries, due to their authoritarian characteristics, were applying lockdown and quarantine regulations with a far more stringent rigour.
In January 2020, Wuhan entered a lockdown which cut off the province socially, politically, and physically from the rest of the country and the world in an effort to snuff out the virus. Thailand and Vietnam later followed suit in March and April, with the measures being policed in a highly authoritarian manner. Travel bans, curfews, and testing en masse have also been implemented to varying degrees across the Asian bloc.
While countries such as the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and others across Europe have implemented both targeted and national lockdown measures since March, some governments have been more successful in the application of widespread Covid-19 containment measures than others. The UK government’s £22 billion test-and-trace system, for example, has received scathing criticism after the outsourced programme reached only 58% of the close contacts of infected people in the UK’s worst-hit areas since September 9th. In the USA, lockdown measures have been implemented sparsely on a state by state basis, and even these regulations have been put under severe strain, as the country experienced a surge of anti-mask protesting and conspiratorial propaganda under Donald Trump.
In contrast, countries like Vietnam and Taiwan have taken a much more aggressive approach to track-and-trace, accompanied by militarised regulation enforcement, and in areas already under authoritarian-communist rule - like China – a high level of technological surveillance is already normalised.
The West is now in a position where the perceived strength and dominance of liberal democracy is being put into question in the international realm, as more authoritarian Asian states have experienced much greater success in preventing the spread of the virus than most of Europe and the USA. Of the top five countries with the highest Covid-19 death rate per capita, four are European, one of which being the UK. Appallingly, in the USA over 10,400,000 cases have been recorded, along with more than 240,000 deaths. In contrast to China’s population of over one billion where there have been only 91,000 recorded cases and 4,700 deaths, a trend which is consistent across the Asian bloc where heavily authoritarian restrictions have been applied.
However, it would be difficult to argue that the success of these Asian countries in containing the virus can be attributed solely to the political regime. The strict pseudo-authoritarian lockdown measures implemented by the UK government in March were met resoundingly with high approval from the public, a measure of ‘acceptable authoritarianism’, and yet the UK has experienced the exact opposite of the effective staunching of Covid-19 achieved by the Asian bloc.
Cultural factors play a significant role in these differences – notably, that most European countries are individualistic, while countries like China, Vietnam, Thailand and Japan are Confucian in culture, with citizens holding community benefit in much higher regard. Especially in countries like China, the culture of honour holds each citizen to account in caring for their family members, especially their parents and elders. In these regions, respect for one’s elders is embedded in the culture, and there is a deep-rooted sense of shame related to neglecting the care of one’s parents. Indeed, Chinese citizens can face hefty fines and even a prison sentence if the courts deem them to have broken this particularly Asian social contract of care that has spanned thousands of years. In comparison, the tragedies that occurred within care homes across the UK at the height of the pandemic are even more atrocious. While many felt that the government had failed in their duty of care to the elderly, it is clear that we all failed to meet the bar set by the Asian culture of honour.
It is also clear that a level of distrust in political officials factors greatly into the success of Covid-19 measures, as it is not only the authoritarian countries which have managed to stem the infection tide. For instance, the Japanese government received a 55% approval rating for its coronavirus response by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in his first month as Premier, the highest rating since February, and New Zealand’s swift and decisive lockdown measures have ensured that of the country’s 1,955 cases, only 25 resulted in death.
Other factors, then, must come into play – that is, how much the people trust the government to tackle the virus. The fact that the UK government was slow to implement lockdown measures in March significantly factors into Boris Johnson’s plummeting approval ratings, as well as the generally confusing regulations which have been implemented throughout the year. In particular, Johnson’s reluctance to fire Dominic Cummings for breaching lockdown regulations has resulted in a sense of disillusionment among the UK public in the government’s ability to handle the pandemic.
Authoritarianism is not the solution to overcoming the pandemic. Rather, governments should focus on rebuilding bridges with the public and creating a mutual sense of trust. In this way, not only can people be convinced that the government is to be trusted with the handling of the pandemic, but the government can trust that people will follow the regulations, enabling us to return to normalcy.
Image: Unsplash (Martin Sanchez)