The COVID Pivot: Why the West stopped listening?

Marcus is a final year International Relations student and the East Asia Regional Editor for KCL International Relations Today. He currently serves as the President & Senior Editor at King’s College London Geopolitical Risk Society. His research interests include historical and modern-day imperialism, British imperial policy and decolonisation movements in the postwar period. Read more of his work here.

Following Asia’s ongoing successes of managing the COVID-19 pandemic, a series of articles on ‘what the West could learn from the East’ found itself on mainstream press: but whether the West is willing to pick up from their Asian counterparts is a separate question. 

Right from the start, Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore took decisive and consistent measures to keep the number of cases low which yielded huge success. Economically, the OECD predicts the South Korean economy to contract by 1% while Taiwan’s GDP is expected to grow by 1.63%. In contrast, the European Union’s forecast 8% downturn and the United Kingdom’s 11.3% GDP shrinkage says otherwise.

Nevertheless, the West continues to use a collection of double-standard behaviours to characterise the East’s ‘miraculous’ recovery, utilising an exhaustive lens of cultural and intuitive imperialism rooted in arrogance. Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ (1978) continues to be relevant in the introspection of Western attitudes towards ‘oriental’ representation in global politics. ‘COVID Orientalism’ is alive and kicking: the West continues to view non-Western models as ‘inferior’ and ‘undeveloped’ for its lack of Western assistance and blessing, exemplifying the West’s cultural barrier to learn.

Of Arrogance and Ignorance: The West’s Defence

Across editorials, New Zealand’s approach has been hailed as a textbook success story, glorifying Jacinda Ardern’s leadership as the ‘ideal’ model of governance. On the other hand, Vietnam’s successes remain unrecognised and ‘exoticized’: an array of high-profile news articles entitling: “How ‘overreaction’ made Vietnam a success story”, “Vietnam miracle escape” and “Will COVID redefine the East Asian Miracle” routinely patronise and underscore its successes. The problematic speech act of characterising non-Western ‘miracles’ underlines the ‘surprise’ element in Western prejudices against the non-West of being able to excel beyond the Western superiority complex. 

This ties in closely with its know-it-all attitude: in the early onset of the pandemic, British officials and scientists had pompously announced a reinvention of the wheel – opting to experiment and follow a ‘wiser’ strategy – Boris Johnson’s initial ‘take it on the chin’ herd immunity strategy or, the ‘Swedish’ model

These unorthodox models had intended for an alternative containment method at lower economic cost, but to no avail – Sweden’s GDP fell by 8.6% in the second quarter of 2020 and suffered a death rate roughly ten times that of Norway. While in Asia, face masks were regarded as vital public health tools, many Western countries continue to question its value. Even key healthcare institutions like the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control had initially argued against widespread use of face masks. It was only in June when the WHO changed its advice did the UK become convinced – months after the outbreak. France maintained that face masks were unnecessary until April – enforcing a mandatory rule only in August. Citing the need to follow ‘scientific evidence’, the West and shamefully the WHO turned a blind eye from the East and indulged in myths and unorthodox methods.

Mirror and Magnifier: Debunking the Fears of Learning from the East

Analysts have attempted to assign incompatible differences between the West and non-West in COVID-19 responses: whether it is barriers of geography or cultural governance. There has, and will, always be ways to spin non-Western successes to avoid giving it the credit it deserves. For example, Singapore’s success is attributed to easy management in a small country (the UK is 333 times the size of Singapore) yet analysts do not delve into specifics of population density. Singapore (20,192 per sq mile) and Taiwan (1,686 per sq mile) are much more densely populated than the US (87 per sq mile) and the UK (725 per sq mile) but death rates are higher in the latter two.

The next argument comes from the state of preparedness, it is undoubtedly true that Asia is surrounded by a climate of epidemics i.e., 2002 SARS outbreak, 2003 Avian influenza, 2009 Swine flu pandemic, 2012 MERS outbreak thereby, having a richer experience in epidemic management. Most developed Asian states are naturally more prepared for epidemic management, having pre-existing infrastructure and protocol available to allow for extensive planning and fast response rates. Nonetheless, being in the ‘state of preparedness’ should not be seen as a delegitimizing factor: the West has had the luxury of time and resources to prepare – but it chose to underplay it.

The willingness to absorb and learn from one another is something that does not come natural for the West. In a Financial Times article, the reason why countries are slow to learn from success cases is a sad, pathetic one — language barriers. It is simply more convenient to learn from countries with a shared language. Furthermore, the difference in ideology and politics impede countries from doing so: each state has its own institutions, culture and history. Policy is thus perceived to be untranslatable for its diverse stakeholders, circumstances and reception. What they fail to see is that, unlike financial and economic crises – pandemics are culturally blind.

The West has a long list of excuses to underplay Asian performance: by focusing on limitations rather than best practices. Most commonly, there is a fear that COVID-19 has not only killed millions but also the supremacy of western economies, liberal values and democracy. The constant equation of China’s governance as an umbrella term for social orders in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Singapore is an ignorant and quite frankly – a racist one.

In Western eyes, ‘Asian’ democracy is different and ‘uncomparable’ to Western standards with the subtext that “Asians live in dictatorships, are naturally more obedient to the government and do not care about freedom and privacy”. While in some circumstances, it is true that the tensions between individual rights and public health are weaker in Asian states for there is a heavier emphasis on communitarianism. This certainly does not mean that they are all autocracies or oblivious to state-sanctioned violation of civil rights.

It is the arrogance of the West that views itself superior, wise and more worthy of other nations: they fail to recognise that agreeing with Asian best practices do not dilute their democracies. The very fact that there is a fear of endangering ‘Western liberalism’ says a lot about its integral rigidity and confidence. The West needs to get off their high horses and not make a false choice between freedom and public health on the other. Nonetheless, in the West’s defence, it is certainly difficult to replicate the culture of public compliance and trust in governments for its deep-rooted ethos of fundamental individual rights. 

All successes in the West and non-West required some sacrifices in terms of citizen rights and freedoms. European countries have in part, introduced measures that impinge far more drastically on personal liberties. What the West will not admit is that they are striking the wrong balance by routinely politicising the pandemic and not treating it as a health crisis. Some countries are prepared to paralyse the economy and risk lives but data protection remains sacrosanct. Unfortunately, this pandemic has confirmed that “the state is strong where it should be weak, and weak where it should be strong”.

Will the West (ever) learn?

Perhaps one of COVID-19’s potential ‘positive’ outcomes is the reexamination of global governance and the cultivation of a ‘spirit of learning’ in the international arena. Can the ‘teachers’ of yesterday now learn from its (non-Western) ‘students’? Or is that something that is habitually embarrassing for the West to admit?

It is not only developed democracies in Asia that have lessons for the West, African states have learnt a great deal from tackling pandemics like Zika and Ebola. Experience and close study of outbreaks on their own will not provide protection against the virus. Without the ability and genuine humility to engage and learn lessons, the West is setting themselves up to fail.  

It is important to discern that the non-West is not immune to critique: not all Asian states have lived up to ‘standards’, some Southeast Asian states have resorted to propagating unscientific approaches and rounding up immigrants in cramped up clusters that led to huge infection rates and human rights violations. Potential lessons from the non-West are hijacked by China’s unremorseful, revisionist aggression in the midst of the pandemic. The lack of a formal apology, continued territorial and maritime aggression, diplomatic spats and the experimentation of an alternate China-backed WHO apparatus is certainly not helping. Credibility and transparency of Vietnam’s data became questioned as a result of China’s botched attempt of covering up. The consequence is that knowledge accumulated by experts from China and other Asian countries on pandemic and mitigation strategies becomes negligible.

Essentially, it is difficult to compartmentalise non-Western successes unemotionally, China’s illiberal politics and lack of transparency makes it difficult for the West to sympathise and listen. Unlike Asia, past psychological experiences of SARS and pandemics have enriched countries with the need for effective and rapid responses.

The end of COVID-19 will hopefully see the West abandon its deep-seated and simply wrong sense of superiority over the non-West. The West has much to learn from the East and the pandemic is just a start: if Western models and theories work, so do non-Western ones.

Image credits:

https://www.eastcapital.com/Look-East/Experts/sanat-sachar/vietnam–a-rare-covid-19-success-story-so-far/

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