People wearing masks wait in line to buy masks in Seoul on February 28. Photo: Reuters
by Ian Inkster
by Ian Inkster

In the battle against the coronavirus, East Asian societies and cultures have the edge

  • In real numbers, East Asian economies like China and South Korea are handling the crisis better than Western countries, in large part, it would seem, because of their strong traditions of Confucianism and Buddhism and sense of shared responsibility

There is a discernible difference between how the East and West have managed the invasion of Covid-19. The relative anarchy of the West is visible at all levels.

Social distancing rules are being broken in shops, parks and at tourist sites. In Britain, around 1 million small businesses might go under in weeks if the government’s emergency loan scheme cannot deliver funding (because the banking system seems loathe to actually release funds cheaply and quickly).

Britain is now an example to be avoided. The government claims to be following the science while failing to deliver the basics to the active sites of virus management. Doctors and health workers have yet to be tested for the virus or provided with ventilators. Little wonder that Britain’s prime minister, health secretary and chief medical officer all became infected late last month. Is this a cosmic irony or merely a Western one?
At another level, British farmers who might now be delivering fruits and vegetables into the food supply are befuddled by a lack of labour and hoping to import Romanian and other Eastern European crop pickers, despite the potential supply of British students off school.

One estimate is that nearly 100,000 such workers are needed from the European Union or beyond. This is an awful lot of cross-border movement for a nation wishing to control a virus that knows no borders.

As a final vivid indicator, the medical supplies now entering Britain’s National Health Service are coming from East Asia. The founder of, China’s biggest internet retailer, is sending millions of items to the NHS. Taiwan’s government is donating 10 million masks to countries including Britain and the United States.

Meanwhile, Huawei, the telecoms equipment manufacturer that has been at the heart of a dispute in Britain about possible Chinese influence on Boris Johnson’s government, has donated millions of masks to several European countries.

So, the Western mode of virus defence appears to be confusion and resistance within civil society and doubt and prevarication among governments. Indeed, it is easy to argue that a vicious circle is developing between the actions of governments and the reactions of people.

Blame Boris Johnson for giving my colleague the coronavirus

Despite the undoubted good-heartedness of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers in Europe who have risked their own health by helping doctors in hospitals, collecting shopping for vulnerable self-isolators, providing food for the poor and so on, a huge number of people appear antagonistic towards most officialdom outside the medical system.

These may be well-chosen examples, but results can speak for themselves. If we consider mortality rates for March 28-29 in four Western countries (the US, Spain, Italy and Britain) versus six East Asian economies (China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan), the Western average is 6.3 per cent and the East Asian average, 3.7 per cent – in comparison with the global average of 4.7 per cent.

In other words, East Asia has quite simply outclassed the West. It is also fair to suggest this ratio of deaths to total infections serves as a proxy for the efficiency with which a society or government is managing the diffusion and permeation of the virus.

Keeping the truly vulnerable alive, while ensuring larger numbers of people who catch the virus recover, is a sign of social care, organisation and knowledge: of clear and humane priorities, and coherent reactions among millions of people. And it seems the East Asian economies have been doing this far better than the Western nations that embrace the greatest democratic freedoms and enjoy the largest resources in the world.

Yes, it is easy to judge dubious government policies, but then the mode of governance does reflect the nature of a society. Effectively, the coronavirus disease, Covid-19, is a tough test that has turned the world into a gigantic laboratory in which to compare societies and their cultures.

As other economies panic, China can wait and design better stimulus package

And thus far, in the battle against the coronavirus, the individualistic and aggressive nature of Western industrial democracies has been found wanting. Western culture may yet be good for innovation, growth and welfare in the long haul, but this crisis has revealed its weaknesses.

For example, for every Western government, there is a contrasting set of policies; for every group of experts, there is a wonderful number of stories concerning the best equipment, the best institutions and which indicators best show the true course of events and pathways to an acceptable result. However, what counts as an acceptable result is clouded by confusion.

In contrast, despite the conflicts between, say, the governments of China, Japan and Taiwan, and their vast political differences, their basically successful responses to Covid-19 have been strikingly similar.

What has come through in each of the East Asian societies is a moral economy compounded of ancient traditions of Confucianism and Buddhism, and moderation of individualism by deep values of benevolence, shared responsibilities and obligations that might well be at the heart of East Asia’s success.

Cultures that are sturdy in a world of change do not have to rely on expensive policies or promises of rapid economic recovery, for cultural suasion can go a very long way. It can save lives.

Ian Inkster, PhD, is professorial research associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London, and a senior fellow at the Taiwan Studies Programme, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham