Perhaps the most startling trend visible in the global Covid-19 pandemic is the vast differential separating East Asia from the West when it comes to the disease’s impact.
Very clearly East Asia, defined as the Sinic or Sinic-influenced nations of China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, has done better than the West on virus management.
Unlike most infectious diseases which register their highest mortality in the developing world, Covid-19 has wreaked its greatest havoc among the world’s richest nations.
The “East-West” cluster of nations – Europe and North America on the one hand, and Sinic East Asia on the other – represent the globe’s three key zones of economic activity.
In the East, the political structures of authoritarian China and Vietnam, on the one hand, and of democratic Japan, South Korea and Taiwan on the other, are diametrically opposed.
In the West these have varied from country to country, even within the supposed unity of the EU, and state to state in the United States’ federal union.
Moreover, no two countries share identical healthcare systems or demographics. And there are almost certainly discrepancies in data due to differences in test regimens, test efficiencies, reporting practices, methods of assigning cause of death to Covid-19, and so on.
Yet even the briefest glance at the numbers reveals a stark macro trend. East Asia has been far more adept at pandemic management than the West. This runs across all key metrics and by massive differentials.
The list of the top 10 nations for infections, according to data collated by Johns Hopkins University, is a roll call of the biggest, most prosperous and influential Western countries.
The USA is in the number one spot, with the UK at number 3, Spain at number 4, Italy at 5, France at 7 and Germany at 8.
The virus originated in East Asia, but no East Asian nation makes the top 10 list. The world’s most populous nation, China, is in 11th place. The East-West divergence in fatality rates is even starker.
China (population: 1.3 billion) has suffered 4,637 dead. Japan (population: 126 million) has lost 678. South Korea (population 51 million) has lost 260. Taiwan (population: 23.7 million) has lost only seven. Vietnam (population: 95.5 million) has registered zero deaths.
Western mortality rates are on a vastly different order of magnitude.
The USA (population: 328 million) has lost 84,118. The UK (population: 66 million) has lost 33, 264. Italy (population 60 million) has lost 31,106. Spain (population 47 million) has lost 27, 104. France (population 67 million) has lost 27, 077 and Germany (population 83 million) has lost 7,861.
In other words, Germany, at the bottom of the Western list, has nearly double the deaths of China, at the top of the East Asian list.
Spain’s mortality per million are 580.1, Italy’s 514.7, the UK’s 499.1, France’s 404.2, the USA 260.4 and Germany’s, 94.8. Meanwhile, Japan’s are 5.4, South Korea’s 5.0, China’s 3.3, Taiwan’s 0.3 and Vietnam’s zero.
On the macro level, East Asia has bigger cities and higher population densities. On the micro level, it has a culture in which food is shared from communal dishes.
So what has the East done right and the West wrong? Naturally comparison demands generalities, but even detailed variables are fiendishly difficult to dissect.
Take age, a key risk factor for Covid-19. One reason Italy was believed to have suffered so severely early in the pandemic was because of its demographics: the world’s second oldest.
However, Japan, the country with the world’s oldest population, has seen a Covid-19 death rate 45 times lower that Italy’s.
The two main vectors of transmission for Covid-19 are airborne droplets and contact. In countering these vectors, East Asia’s social habits trump the West’s.
Due to East Asia’s air pollution and harsh influenza’s, mask wearing – a simple but critical step in halting respiratory disease transmission by containing infected persons’ droplets within masks – is a common habit across the region.
Moreover, there is less direct personal physical contact in East Asian behaviors, with its tradition of bowing, than in the West, with its traditions of cheek-kissing, hugging and hand-shaking.
Another aspect of culture is diet, which impacts a key Covid-19 risk factor. East Asians as a whole suffer lower rates of obesity than Westerners.
Attitudes toward authority and community consciousness are nebulous concepts, but East Asia may have advantages for reasons that combine politics and culture.
And even democratic Japan, South Korea and Taiwan experienced dictatorial or militaristic governance within living memory.
Beyond politics lies the broader issue of culture. East Asian nations share Confucian culture of collectivism and group identity, bolstered by greater levels of ethnic homogeneity than exist in the West.
However, all East Asian countries have living memories of war on their own soil.
Japan was massively bombed in World War II. China experienced a post-war Civil War in the 1950’s, as did Korea in the 1950’s, and Vietnam in the 1960’s-70’s. Today, China and Taiwan, and the two Korea’s remain trapped in military face-offs.
Western nations, however, have not suffered war on their own land since 1945. Yet even in Europe, certain countries which suffered badly in World War II such as Germany and Poland have weathered the Covid-19 storm better than those which did not, such as the UK and USA.
Could these issues have impacted public responsiveness to crisis messaging?
One of the things to remember is that China, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan had been through this before with SARS and MERS. That preparation also helped.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2020.