From East to West: The COVID Response from a Trans-Continental Perspective

As part of the collaboration with the Global Health Initiative, CEAS collected reflections on people's experiences with COVID-19 measures in East Asia and their thoughts on East Asia's COVID-19 responses. The academic team of CEAS came out with a report based on our survey result and gave an analysis about how a measure could match up to responses in other regions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a fascinating exercise in comparative politics. From the United States to Switzerland, from Brazil to China, no two responses to the pandemic have been identical. However, for those of us who have crossed the Eurasian landmass from East Asia to Europe, the differences in responses are especially transparent. With the help of testimonies from Graduate Institute students who experienced COVID-19 responses in East Asia, CEAS reflects on the reasons for, and consequences of, this stark contrast between these two regions of the world.

Before proceeding, the limits to this reflection must be acknowledged. The variation within these two regions as well as between them is considerable, and as students of the Graduate Institute we represent only a small portion of those who have experienced the consequences of the pandemic in both regions. Nonetheless, the fact that we are privileged enough to be able to experience life in two different parts of the world does provide us with a broadened perspective on how the pandemic has shaped life in the world beyond our own localities.

Worlds Apart

As expected, those at the Graduate Institute who experienced the coronavirus responses of both regions were struck by the differences. Notable differences in the public domain included a much more aggressive testing and tracing policy in East Asia as well as much stricter border closures and quarantine requirements. Beyond government policy, many respondents observed differences in individual practices such as mask-wearing and hand sanitation, especially at the early stages of the pandemic when these practices were not widespread in Europe. While many explanations for these differences have been addressed in a more rigorous way elsewhere, this reflection will seek to interrogate some potential explanations based on the experiences of Graduate Institute students.

A Familiar Foe

Perhaps one of the most compelling explanations for the differences between the responses of the two regions is related to past experience. In the last two decades, East Asia has experienced several epidemics, including SARS, avian flu, swine flu, and MERS. The respiratory effects of air pollution have also had a not insignificant effect on the East Asian consciousness. Not only do governments have more experience with disease control, but individuals too have acquired a collective memory of past outbreaks. In Hong Kong for example, SARS is remembered as a deadly disease that ravaged the city, causing hundreds of deaths, even for those of us who were too young at the time to remember its effects. Today, the Golden Dragon Statue in Causeway Bay serves as an ever-present reminder of those who lost their lives to the disease. With SARS in mind, the vast majority of Hong Kongers began wearing masks and staying at home where possible shortly after the news broke about the virus emerging in Wuhan, well before any measures were put in place by the government.

Cultural Difference?

A common theme in the testimonies that we received was the notion that the responses of East Asian governments would not be tolerated in Europe. In explaining this different level of tolerance, when may be tempted to pursue a comparison between authoritarian and democratic political systems. This line of reasoning, however, falls short due to the fact that strict measures in East Asia were tolerated regardless of regime type, including in contexts like Hong Kong where government overreach has become a sensitive subject.

It should be pointed out, however, that the measures that East Asians have had to put up with have largely fallen short of full-scale lockdowns like those in Europe. Perhaps the most dramatic constraints on individual liberty have been imposed on those returning from overseas, who were fitted with monitoring bracelets to ensure that they did not break quarantine, with severe punishments being put in place for those who did. Ultimately, these strictest of measures only applied to a small minority of people who only had to put up with them for a limited duration.

One possible explanation for the differences that we observed lies in a comparison between East Asian communalism and the emphasis on individual liberty that is prevalent in the West. While the vast majority of Europeans have demonstrated an admirable willingness and ability to make sacrifices for the public good, there is nonetheless a clear limit to this that governments have been unwilling to push. Moreover, the individualist rejection of coronavirus restrictions, while practised by a small minority in Europe, has gained even less traction in East Asia.

There is a dark side to this East Asian communalism, however. Some respondents expressed discomfort with the way in which this cultural value has been policed, which has principally been through social pressure. In many East Asian countries, it very quickly became an inexcusable faux pas to be seen outside wearing a mask, even in the absence of any laws requiring it. While to some extent this communal self-policing is to be welcomed, when taken to the extreme people have found themselves caught up in public paranoia as a result of misidentification, and have been named and shamed online by strangers. In Hong Kong, the paranoia at one point was so extreme that a young woman wearing a hair-tie around her wrist that was the same colour as a quarantine monitoring bracelet was accused online of breaking quarantine, leading to police involvement.

Advanced Technology

One final area which could explain the difference in responses between the two regions is the different uses of technology. East Asia is a region known for its cutting edge technology, and arguably this asset made the transition to living in the midst of the pandemic easier. In South Korea for example, the switch to online classes was rapid and relatively seamless. The high levels of technology usage in households, the donation of electronic devices to students by corporations like Samsung and LG , and the fact that online teaching had already been a feature of the Korean education system meant that South Korea was well-equipped to adjust to living through an online modality.

In addition to being an important part of the transition to life post-COVID, technology has also played an essential role in government efforts to control the spread of the virus. Contact tracing applications, including one created by a private citizen, and technology that allowed for the monitoring of quarantined individuals became an important part of government strategies. The transferability of such strategies to Europe is limited, not due to technological considerations so much as an understandably heightened sensitivity around the relationship between technology and privacy.

Stronger Together

However successful one may consider East Asia’s response to the pandemic to be, it is an undeniable fact that controlling or even eliminating the virus within a country’s own borders is not sufficient to halt a global pandemic. It is clear that closing off a country to the rest of the world is not a viable long-term solution, and ultimately international cooperation is what is necessary to meet the truly global challenge that the pandemic represents. Moreover, East Asia’s ‘success’ should not be overstated, as there are clear drawbacks to some of the responses that some jurisdictions implemented. Regardless, a comparative study of national responses to the pandemic is valuable, and can yield important lessons for future global health challenges.


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