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Fintan O’Toole: Why does the West not have the humility to learn from Asia's Covid success?

Racism has blinded us from learning how Asian countries save their citizen's lives

Maybe when this is all over, we can address one of the great questions that hangs over responses to the pandemic in the West. It is the question of racism – not just the overt kind, but also the more subtle way that assumptions about ethnic difference shape our collective attitudes.

Why, to put it bluntly, have we been so reluctant to learn from the Asian countries that have managed the pandemic best? Because, somehow, they’re not like us? Has it been more important to maintain that distinction than to save our own lives?

We’re always told that international comparisons are complex, and that’s surely true. But the most basic ones are astonishingly stark.

Here's one: so far, the Isle of Man has three times as many deaths from Covid-19 as Taiwan – not in relative terms but in absolute numbers. The Isle of Man is home to 85,000 people. Taiwan has a population of 24 million.


Australia and New Zealand have been successful because they were willing to learn from and copy south Asian countries

Here's another. San Marino has nearly three times as many deaths as Singapore. San Marino has 34,000 people living up a mountain. Singapore has 5.9 million people packed into a dense city state. In the former, 84 people have died in the pandemic; in the latter just 30.

One more, to labour the point. Japan has lost just over 9,000 people. The UK has lost nearly 130,000. That’s roughly 1,900 deaths per million people in the UK; 72 per million in Japan. The latter, by the way, has the oldest population in the world, hence a far greater number in the most vulnerable age categories.

But it’s not just that these countries have saved so many more of their citizens’ lives. It’s that they’ve done it with less disruption to ordinary life. They haven’t suffered anything like the long national lockdowns we continue to endure. A reasonably normal existence has been possible for most people, most of the time.

But what, one might object, about Australia and New Zealand? They are part of the cultural West and they’ve done very well in controlling the virus. True, but one of the things that is most obvious about both countries is that they’ve radically reoriented themselves in recent decades. They are, increasingly, Asia-Pacific countries, very much attuned to the wider region. They’ve been successful because they were willing to learn from and copy south Asian countries.

Why has that not been true of Ireland, of Europe, of North America? Why did we not do the obvious thing and ask for advice from the countries that so clearly knew what they were doing? Why, even after a year of live empirical experiments on billions of people, do we seem so reluctant to admit that the results show who made the right calls – and that it wasn’t us?

If readiness explains the better speed and effectiveness of early responses to the pandemic, it does not explain why the West has been so slow to catch on and catch up

The disparity between east Asia on the one side and North America and Europe on the other was completely obvious by the beginning of last summer. Yet there has been a deep reluctance to acknowledge it, let alone to draw the lessons and ask the basic question: why don’t we do what they’re doing?

It's true that one of the big differences was preparation. Even relatively poor southeast Asian countries had been thinking seriously about pandemics. Vietnam, for example, managed to establish a national public health emergency operations centre and surveillance system in the wake of the Sars epidemic of 2002 and 2003. It was ready for Covid-19. It has had fewer deaths than Liechtenstein.

But if readiness explains the better speed and effectiveness of early responses to the pandemic, it does not explain why the West has been so slow to catch on and catch up.

The basic tools of the southeast Asian strategy are neither mysterious nor culturally specific: wear masks, rigorously control inward movement, empower local public health teams, do deep contact tracing and move fast and hard to hammer any outbreak. Why did we not borrow them?

In trying to answer that question, we can’t leave unconscious but profound prejudice out of the equation. For all that western governments have talked of following the science, they have also followed instincts, hunches, suppositions. These gut feelings have much more to do with inherited cultural reflexes than with the scientific ideal of following where the evidence leads.

Among those reflexes are superiority and difference. Together they created a screen of Orientalism that has falsely separated Them from Us.

Overt racism was, of course, present from the start. The virus was Chinese. It had an Asian face. An analysis of 14,000 images in 15 major UK news providers from January to August 2020 found that fully a third of them used images of east and southeast Asian people to illustrate Covid stories that had nothing to do with Asian countries.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, branded Covid the "China virus". Unsurprisingly, racist attacks on people of Chinese heritage increased rapidly in most western countries, including Ireland.

But there were also quiet conjectures in much more respectable circles: we know more than they do. There has been – among official scientific advisers as much as among politicians – a reluctance to accept that maybe their peers in Taiwan or South Korea are better at this stuff than they are.

The great irony is that we have ended up having to accept far more day-to-day restrictions on how we go about our lives

Alongside this unthinking and innate arrogance, there has been a deep misconception about how different people in the West are to those in the East. When he first announced lockdown measures for Ireland in March 2020, then taoiseach Leo Varadkar promised to avoid the "authoritarian response" of other countries. It was not hard to guess which countries he was talking about.

He was not alone in this. The broad feeling in the West was that there was nothing much to learn from the East, because they are not like us. They are docile, obedient, inured to accepting orders from the top. We are freedom-loving and independent-minded, natural anarchists who will chafe under restrictions.

This was nonsense – many of the most successful Asian countries are democracies. And the great irony is that we have ended up having to accept far more day-to-day restrictions on how we go about our lives than the supposedly submissive Orientals.

Maybe one of the lessons from all of this is the virtue of humility. Pandemics are not eastern or western. Our way of responding to them has patently not been superior to theirs.

The south Asian countries that have saved so many lives in this crisis did so because they in turn had learned lessons from previous pandemics and adapted them to this one. We will have to do the same. The first step is having the honesty and modesty to accept that we have much to learn from Asia. The second is to accept that Orientalist prejudices have given us nothing but higher death tolls.