Socio-cultural underpinnings of COVID policies

Different social values and cultures determined different COVID policies in the West and the East. [Photo: Getty Images]
The number of Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong has been rocketing upwards since the beginning of February this year. By the end of the month, it had increased by 30,000 new patients, with more than 80 deaths every day. It seems the curve still has not reached its peak to date. This international metropolis with almost the highest population density globally faces the same problem as Western countries when dealing with the pandemic. The overwhelmed healthcare system looks to be close to collapse. The society has been in the never-ending debate on the direction of the Covid-19 strategy. They want to choose the better one in two broadly classified policies employed in tackling the pandemic, “dynamic zero Covid-19” and “living with Covid-19”.

The Chinese mainland has been sticking to the former approach, and many other Asian countries/regions took similar measures at the beginning of the outbreak. In comparison, the latter is a model commonly adopted by Western countries in fighting the epidemic, where people try to establish a herd immunity barrier to achieve the goal of living with the virus.

Two significantly different COVID policies

Covid policies in various countries are based on their political system, social cultures and values. There has been a long debate globally about the two very different strategies. Eastern countries did comparatively better with the number of Covid cases than Western countries. The Chinese mainland has a population of 1.4 billion, with fewer than 4,700 deaths until early March. By contrast, there are more than 130,000 deaths in France, with more than 22 million people diagnosed with Covid. Similarly, Germany has 17.3 million confirmed cases and more than 120,000 deaths out of 83 million people.

There is no doubt that both Western and Eastern governments take the containment of the spread of the virus as the primary goal to minimize the negative impact of the pandemic on their economies and people’s lives. When the pandemic entered  its second year, Britain’s government came up with  the idea of letting people get the disease with the hope that enough of its citizens would become immune to protect the whole population, which happened to be the starting point of the idea of herd immunity. But the idea had been widely criticized by professionals and the public at that time. Western governments raised “living with the Covid-19” again after the Omicron variant, which does not multiply readily in lung tissue and causes less harm to infected people. This new stance was applauded by some officials and scientists and welcomed by people exhausted with this global health emergency. Western governments reassessed the weight of the pandemic and the growing socio-economic problems, arguing that the immediate priority was to alleviate socio-economic pressures. However, it’s an entirely different story in China where it has tried its utmost to help Wuhan clear its Covid cases. Although there have been sporadic outbreaks in other Chinese cities, they have been quickly wiped out. With these experiences and countermeasures in practice, the policy in China developed into “dynamic zero Covid-19”. Compulsory mass testing, epidemiological tracking and travel restrictions successfully contained this epidemic in China.

Individualism and Collectivism behind COVID policies

Different measures mean various social values and philosophies. The most notable differences revolve around the concepts of “individualism” and “collectivism.”  To a certain extent, these different social values and cultures determined different approaches from the West and the East. Equality and human rights principles have fueled individualism in the West, where personal interests are prior to community interests. Louis Dumont wrote Essais sur l’individualisme (Essays on individualism), explaining the source of individualistic ideology as the fundamental values of modern Western society. The core of contemporary individualism is to understand the social relations between people and political ties of people and the right to rule. After entering the industrial civilization, the Western world has gradually developed a spirit of struggle to safeguard its own rights and interests, most of them being independence, freedom and equality as the principles of life. Any form of social and national intervention and restriction on the individual is doubted upon. Therefore, in the face of growing pandemic restrictions Westerners seem to have distrust in their governments.

Confucius-Mencius doctrines are a crucial part of Eastern cultures, advocating the harmonious unity of nature and man. People are regarded as part of the collective. This culture has had a profound impact on Asians, especially in China. The thought is also reflected in the political philosophy as well as how people interpret their relationship with the government. The community interests are taken as the priority, where one should like to sacrifice themselves in order to achieve the goal of the community. Collectivity has become a distinctive feature of Chinese society. In terms of governance, the people in the East are more obedient to the government than the people in the West. Also, Eastern governments possess more trust from people than their Western counterparts. As for the pandemic in the Chinese mainland, where there is currently an outbreak, there is a localized lockdown followed by free and universal testing. Although some people might question if their privacy has been invaded, a great majority of the population would say they understand the health authority and comply with the policies as they think it’s beneficial for the collective.

Lessons, experience and mutual learning 

Social values and cultures arise from diverse historical traditions and social backgrounds, but there should be no judgment of good or bad. Both individualism and collectivism have their pros and cons, but neither value should be radicalized. The two values can learn from each other’s strengths to offset their weaknesses. A Chinese proverb says that stones from other hills may serve to polish the jade of this one, which means that others’ experiences can teach us as well. Hence, there are many ways the East can learn from the West’s experiences and the West from the East’s. For instance, the British Medical Journal published the article What can the world learn from China’s response to covid-19? and Lancet also pointed out that the rest of the world can learn from China’s successes in bringing its outbreak under control.

A primary reason Chinese mainland (also South Korea early on in the pandemic) has successfully controlled the epidemic is digital governance – using big data to track the outbreak and assess the potential risk to the entire population. What’s more, rapid mass nucleic acid testing made it possible to diagnose patients early. Mandatory real-name authentication and the collection of personal data of public health (e.g., travel/itinerary information) were essential prerequisites. It is also the main contributor to the “dynamic zero Covid-19” policy. This, however, seems unacceptable for most Westerners. The Western world should think about the boundaries of personal privacy and rights protection. The protection of human rights and freedoms is, of course, universally accepted in the development of modern society and a manifestation of the progress of human civilization. But is there no room for discussion on such a topic? Would it be reasonable for privacy protection when it may result in a threat to public health and the well-being of the whole society?

China should not overlook the valuable lessons from the Western world either. At present, the vaccination rate of the whole population in European society has reached more than 70%, coupled with a pretty high natural infection rate. It can be said that the herd immunity barrier was initially established. However, new variants of the coronavirus continue to emerge, like Delta and Omicron, which had started further waves of infection. Patients who were infected with the Omicron variant  have their respiratory tract rather than the lungs attacked, which is  less severe than what the other variants can do to a person. Therefore, the policy of “living with the Covid-19” has reoccurred in the West. The countries of the East consider such measures irresponsible and believe that they do not protect people’s lives well. But the former chief expert of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said “dynamic zero Covid-19” is a temporary policy in China’s current social context. Rich experiences about living with Covid policies in Western societies, daily Covid measures like 3G rules in Germany are worth learning for China and other Asian countries. Professionals in China also hold the idea that Chinese society will eventually have to switch to coexisting with the Covid-19 once the country has prepared more comprehensively and acquired further knowledge of the virus.

Moving forward with cooperation and communication

The Austrian parliament voted on January 20 in favor of making vaccinations mandatory by February this year. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is also planning to introduce a vaccine injunction in Germany, with parliament voting on the bill at the end of March. Although vaccination has clearly shown to be effective in reducing the severe illness rates of Covid patients, many people, including the Chinese, still consider compulsory vaccination unacceptable. Clearly, there are some special measures under particular circumstances and people need more to discuss these issues rationally.

The pandemic measures in the West and the East have their advantages and disadvantages even though the countries in the East have performed better. The diversity of civilization stems from its differences. States need to be aware of individual differences and take those into account when evaluating others. More inclusiveness and understanding between the West and the East are desperately needed. The West should not blindly accuse China’s Covid policies of violating privacy and human rights, and the Eastern countries should also understand the socio-economic pressures faced by governments and individuals in the context of the pandemic. Recognizing cultural and value differences is the first step for understanding and respecting different choices. With the increasingly worrisome Asian-hate crimes and xenophobic sentiments in Western societies, the communication and cooperation between the East and the West in the field of medical technology would be helpful for the current situation. After all, viruses are the common enemy.

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