Dangerous Ignorance: Why we learn so little about fighting the pandemic from Asian countries

Not wanting to learn from Asian countries’ successes in handling the pandemic can only be understood as an expression of a perpetuated colonial arrogance [Photo: Getty Images]
Note: The German version of this article was first published on Der Tagesspiegel.

The track record of fighting pandemics in liberal democracies of Europe  does not compare very favorably with that of Asian countries. This applies not only to the comparison with authoritarian China and the semi-authoritarian countries Thailand and Singapore, but also to the comparison with the democratic countries of Taiwan and South Korea. Since the infection figures are not easily comparable due to differences in testing intensity, country differences manifest themselves most evidently in the number of people who have died. For example, in South Korea which has a population of 52 million fewer than 1,500 have died till date whilst in Germany which has a population of 83 million more than 60,000 deaths have occurred. The differences between other European and Asian countries (e.g., between Great Britain and Taiwan) are even more pronounced. The aforementioned Asian societies are also impressively successful in overcoming the economic and social consequences of the crisis.

This is precisely because the spread of  infection was contained very early on and therefore social life could also resume after a relatively short period of interruption. For the sake of simplicity, we shall stick with the comparison between Germany and South Korea: South Korea’s gross domestic product fell by just one percent in 2020 compared to the previous year, while the German economy shrank by five percent. To prevent an even greater slump, the Federal Republic has also taken on a large amount of debt; this is certainly a sensible measure at present but it will severely restrict the state’s ability to act towards other political tasks in the future.

Quarantine compliance through technology

There are a variety of factors that help explain the success of Asian countries in pandemic response, some of which were and continue to be beyond the control of government policy actions. These include insularity (as in the case of Taiwan) or extensive seclusion (as in the case of South Korea); prior experience with pandemics and the pandemic response infrastructure built on this basis; or even the pre-Corona habit of protecting oneself in public by wearing masks. Furthermore, the respectively lower average age of the population in these countries has a positive effect on the number of fatalities. However, these differences alone are not sufficient to explain the success.

The Asian countries in consideration have taken measures that have not even been properly discussed in Germany  because they were declared  early on as an encroachment on the informational self-determination of its citizens. The measures include, above all, the use of new technologies to quickly identify those who are infected in order to avoid further contagion. . In Taiwan, for example, those entering the country are required  to go into strict quarantine for 14 days—either in a government contracted hotel or privately –  which is also monitored  by cellular signal tracking.  Strict isolation is imposed primarily on infected persons for the period during which they are most contagious, which, too is monitored and harshly sanctioned for failure of compliance with quarantine rules; whereas, in this country, the decision and the compliance  to isolation is left to the infected person. Measures also include immediate electronic tracking of contacts with infected persons and prompt digitized notification of all potential contacts. There is no question that such a policy represents a temporary invasion of privacy at the least. Accordingly, such measures must be subject to strict controls—above all, it must be ensured that all data is  reliably deleted after a very short period of time.

No room for discussion

It may nevertheless be the case that, upon closer examination, individual measures are indeed a disproportionate encroachment on civil liberties. But that is where the problem lies: there was no discussion  at all, let alone a systematic review, even though the Federal Republic like many other Western societies could have learned from these measures. However, such learning by “best practice” did not—and still does not—take place. Germany could certainly learn from the digitization of schools that is present in these countries, so that  the negative consequences of school closures could  at least be alleviated.

The successes of some Asian countries in fighting the pandemic are no exception. For two decades, similar success stories have been heard from other  societies. Primarily these include  economic growth rates and successes in the reduction of absolute poverty. Dieter Senghaas describes these processes as “catch-up development”. Comparable processes to the way in which continental European countries caught up with Great Britain at the end of the 19th century in the course of the industrial revolution are currently taking place in non-European regions. Here, the “late starters” have the advantage of being able to learn from the mistakes of the “early starters”. However, it is often overlooked that the early starters must also learn from the late starters if they want to remain on the road to success. If this is done with colonial ignorance, as it was done before, then there is a danger of falling behind in international competition and causing otherwise avoidable consequential problems. Great Britain experienced this in the 20th century. While the growth rates of a country like India can still be ignored with reference to  catch-up development and  higher value added in absolute terms when compared to the one percent growth in Germany, disinterest however turns into bigotry when the social indicators of the countries that are (already) catching up are also better in absolute terms. We can now observe the absolute superiority of the late starters in the pandemic. Not wanting to learn from their success can only be understood as an expression of a perpetuated colonial arrogance.

Narrow media coverage

The public coverage of the pandemic, especially on German public television news programs which continue to attract very high viewing figures, is symptomatic of the low level of awareness of successful policies in other countries. Every evening, coverage of the pandemic revolves around events and policies at home. The domestic perspective is  very rarely abandoned and the Corona policy of those countries that have successfully contained the spread of the virus is hardly ever reported. Until late fall of 2020, the dominant narrative in this country was that Germany was doing an excellent job of fighting the pandemic. The comparative view then turned mostly to the West and chose the United States under Trump as a point of reference. There were detailed reports about the overload of funeral homes or long lines in front of the emergency rooms of hospitals in America. The view to the East, towards Asia, was left out. And when Asian countries were reported on, it was usually with a condescending undertone: these countries were restricting the civil liberties of their citizens with inappropriate authoritarian measures, a path that was not considered desirable for their own country and not compatible with the self-image of the West.

The restrictions on civil liberties that came into effect in Germany since last December cannot however be overlooked. Although it may be a reason to boast that the government has protected informational self-determination of citizens with a non-functioning Corona-Warn-App, it has simultaneously closed stores, schools, cultural institutions and restaurants. Not only has the freedom of association been restricted through a ban on demonstration but people’s freedom of movement has been constricted, even in the privacy of their own homes through a limit on contact options. These are all measures that deeply interfere with people’s liberties. In comparison, the informational state control to which the citizens of South Korea or Taiwan are subjected seems almost marginal.

However, it is not only public Corona reporting that is self-centered; the scientific advisory bodies to policy makers also exhibit a peculiar selectivity. They do not only reflect the discourse hegemony of virologists, epidemiologists, and physicians, while social scientists play a minor role if at all. Above all, the advisory ancillaries  are exclusively national bodies. To our knowledge, experts from successful countries in pandemic control are not systematically incorporated.

High time for global learning

Unfortunately, the pandemic is not an isolated case. The West’s ignorance of successful policies in Asian countries is also evident in other policy areas, such as education. Since the publication of the first PISA study 20 years ago, the mediocre performance of German students compared to their peers in many Asian countries is well known. Here, too, the stage of catch-up development has long since been left behind, and large parts of Western Europe urgently needs to catch up. It has been scientifically researched and known that education is the all-important resource for innovation and the future of any society. However, systematic learning from the education policies  of successful Asian countries has largely failed to materialize. Finland, as a comparatively successful country in Europe, was showcased  and praised to the skies by all school policy makers. The successes of  Asian democracies, however, were largely ignored. The criticism against a supposedly different, collectivist, and authoritarian culture legitimized this perspective.

Where does this ignorance come from? Almost 100 years ago (1922), the American sociologist William Ogburn formulated his theory of “cultural lag”, which can help explain the West’s ignorance of the development of Asian countries. Ogburn assumed that our perceptions, cultural interpretations, and evaluations lag behind the factual development of societies. When it comes to the case of Western ignorance about the successes of Asian countries in fighting pandemics, a certain traditional and outdated imagery (often dating back to colonial times) of the foreign and the self seems to be activated. These include notions of backwardness, authoritarianism, and collectivist orientations attributed to non-Western societies on the one hand, and attributes of self-determination, individualism, and progress attached to the West, on the other.

Reality looks (and probably has always looked) different, as the differences in the success of Corona and education policies clearly show. It is high time to jettison the traditional narratives of post-colonial ignorance and engage in pragmatic learning from a global perspective. In this context, one would like to see better involvement of foreign advisors from those countries that have successfully contained the pandemic, as well as regular media coverage of successful pandemic policies from other countries. This could then also lead to an effective and enlightened pandemic policy in Germany. It may even be too late for it this time, but COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic of the 21st century, and pandemic policy is not the only policy area where Western societies should learn from the so-called “late starters”.

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