Corona: Why the Western world is so reluctant to learn from Asia

The corona crisis painfully exposes the vulnerabilities of the usually dominant West. Not the virus itself, but society will determine how we get out of this.

(Translation of article published in De Groene Amsterdammer on May 27th 2020)

On Tuesday May 20th, a remarkable situation occurred during the technical briefing on the coronavirus in the Dutch House of Representatives. In reaction to messages from the attentive twitterer Edwin Veldhuizen, Jaap van Dissel (Director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Control at RIVM, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) admitted that in earlier briefings, using a chart he had wrongly given the impression that Dutch mortality rate was ‘at the bottom of the European countries’. This wasn’t the case, Van Dissel admitted, we are indeed among the countries with the highest initial mortality rate. In his chart he hadn’t marked all EU countries, and many of these countries do better than the Netherlands in terms of mortality rate.

Though that misunderstanding is now cleared up, the chart uncovers something else as well. Hardly any of the ‘trusted’ European countries, which usually score high internationally, have gloriously come through the first phase of the corona crisis. Examples: the UK, France and — to a lesser degree — Germany.

‘Fortunately’, there’s still the United States, which is even worse off with almost a hundred thousand deaths. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see the world turned upside down like this. Of course, there’s an enormous complexity of factors behind it, ranging from mobility and geography to population density, and it’s too soon to draw conclusions at this stage. But there are definitely differences with other regions. ‘One can criticise the authoritarian character of some regimes in many ways, but epidemiologically countries like China, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Japan have an approach that works very well’, says anthropologist Agustín Fuentes, professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Towards the end of 2019, for many Western countries it all looked much brighter. In the Global Health Security Index published in October of that year, the Netherlands ranked third, after the US and the UK. The index indicated to what degree countries were prepared for biological threats such as a pandemic virus, using prevention, detection and response plans amongst other things. The question then arises how it is possible that so many Western superpowers in this crisis have turned out to be so vulnerable?

Though early this year the outbreak of the new coronavirus seemed to be a biological story, it isn’t anymore. Because of the characteristics of this virus, it has grown into an attack on the modern way of living. The virus strikes where people come together, particularly in indoor environments, and where large groups of people gather. It is rampant especially in cities, at a time when half the world population lives there. It robs millions of people from their livelihood and what’s more, it predominantly affects people who, because of their living conditions, are less capable to adapt to the presence of the virus. Therefore Covid-19 is a biosocial reality, says Fuentes. ‘It’s about our transportation, our politics, our economy, our social systems.’

This is why the epidemic has grown into an extreme stress test for entire societies. ‘And rather than the virus itself it’s our political, social, economic and healthcare infrastructures that make the difference,’ says Fuentes. ‘This crisis shows which cultures are weak within the context of an epidemic. And as an American I can tell you: at this moment, the US are exposing their extreme weakness.’

Whereas the first reflex of a country like China was authoritarian denial, governments of neoliberal countries like the UK and the Netherlands fell into reticence so as not to pose too many restrictions on freedom and the economy. An important European hesitation at the onset of the crisis was the result of the neoliberal ideal of ‘minimal government steering’, says Joep Leerssen, professor of European Studies at Maastricht University. ‘The coronavirus has brought back the strong state. Policy on this can’t be left to the market. As a result, the retreating government has had to make a U-turn.’

Out of their discomfort with this new situation, the European governments tried to sell their steering authoritarian policies to their people, Leerssen observed. ‘It’s interesting to look into how all kings and queens in Europe have addressed their people. They all discuss the same illness, but suddenly Danish, French, Dutch, Spanish and British stereotyped self-images pop up: “This is who we are and this is how we deal with this crisis.”’

It remains to be seen to what degree these stereotypes are in line with reality, says anthropologist Ginny Mooy. ‘We hear Prime Minister Mark Rutte say that you can’t tell the Dutch what to do’, she says. ‘That’s not describing culture, that’s telling it how you want it. The Dutch can handle all kinds of rules just fine, but that isn’t the political culture of the moment.’

She recognizes the stereotype of the ‘down-to-earth Dutchman’ which domineered at the onset of the outbreak from her time spent in Sierra Leone during the ebola outbreak of 2014. ‘There too, the government, fearing the economic consequences, initially laughed it off. They too were reluctant to take drastic measures, and they too had this ‘Everything Under Control’ smile at press conferences.’

Mooy thinks the Dutch government and its advisors call up this self-image of the sober, self-willed Dutchman in order to avoid having to do certain things. A stricter lockdown, for example, wouldn’t work here. People who have been in contact with infected individuals don’t receive a daily follow-up call, because according to GGD (Municipal Health Service) director Margreet de Graaf ‘this wouldn’t fit our national character’. In the Netherlands, we choose pressure over coercion, GGD physician and professor Christian Hoebe explains in the Dutch medical journal Medisch Contact on May 22nd: ‘There are countries where they would choose the latter. That’s not our way. I don’t think that would work. It would meet with resistance.’

Noteworthy is the aversion to learning from countries that do seem to have their affairs in order. On March 13th, when the situation in Italy already was dramatic, Thierry Baudet, leader of the Dutch political party Forum For Democracy, asked Bruno Bruins, at that time Minister for Medical Care, what he thought of Singapore’s approach. ‘When it comes to looking at other countries, I look more at countries like Belgium, Germany, United Kingdom, France, Italy and other countries than I would at Singapore. Because I want to learn from those countries closer by’, was Bruins’ reply.

In and of itself that reflex is understandable. Crisis management can’t be transplanted just like that from one social-cultural context to another. Indeed, Singapore isn’t the Netherlands — we have a different take on privacy and individual freedoms. This was evident from the commotion at the announcement of the apps that are to help with the source and contact research: a considerable proportion of the Dutch population is extremely anxious about a surveillance society.

At the same time, the Netherlands is a country where the government, in its fight against terrorism and crime, can take violation of privacy quite far already, thanks in part to the 2017 Intelligence and Security Services Act (WIV, colloquially called the Dragnet Bill). Also, it’s a country where citizens massively use apps from commercial providers that violate privacy.

The Ghosts Of Colonialism Are Haunting The World’s Response To The Pandemic’ wrote Abraar Karan, an internal medicine physician and clinical fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and Mishal Khan, an associate professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in an opinion piece on May 29. ‘The World Health Organization has sent a message to every country in the world during this pandemic: Test, test, test. But not every country felt the message was meant for them.’

African and Asian countries have had far more experience dealing with infectious diseases like Ebola and SARS than the United States and the countries of Europe, Karan and Khan wrote, but neocolonialism relies on the continued belief that former colonial rulers are superior in terms of expertise and societal values. Another recent article mentioned that several African countries’ approaches offer lessons to learn as well.

The aversion to learning from this kind of non-Western countries goes hand in hand with stereotyping as well. Take South Korea, for example, which has a policy relying heavily on testing, tracing and isolation. With a population of more than 51 million, the country currently has 11,225 officially registered infections and 227 registered corona deaths. And yet, Remco Breuker, professor of Korean Studies at Leiden University, notices that conversations about the Korean mentality and corona approach in the Netherlands quickly degenerate into non-productive discussions, ‘bordering racism, or even crossing that line’.

When the Dutch talk about the Korean approach, they often mention their ‘docility’, much to Breukers annoyance. ‘Koreans have a strong tendency to approach individuals who don’t adhere to a norm, such as a drunk who is harassing someone. But they also resist group pressure. If you try to impose something on a Korean, he’ll get right in your face and say “Who are you to say that?”’

Even when it comes to privacy, Korea differs less from us than how it often is portrayed. Following the outbreak of the deadly MERS virus in 2015, the Korean parliament passed new legislation allowing for far-reaching privacy breaches in times of an epidemic. ‘That law will be repealed when it’s over, and yes, many people in Korea are also anxious about it,’ says Breuker.

Face mask aversion
How much our cultural resistance can get in our way is evident from the discussion about the usefulness of wearing face masks in the street. Science hasn’t yet offered any definite answers on this subject, which is why for a long time the advices were arranged along (now increasingly shifting) cultural lines. In many Asian countries, wearing face masks has been common practice for three or four decades because of air pollution or infections.

‘While to the Western world, for some reason, they are seen as a dramatic last resort, a kind of symbol of the restrictions on freedom’, says anthropologist Fuentes. ‘During a demonstration against the measures in the US, a picture was taken of someone with a sign saying: “My freedom is worth more than your health”. People really are prepared to fight for it.’

According to anthropologist Fuentes, the trick is to tackle a crisis in one’s own way, but with the best of other worlds. ‘Think of our approach as we would think of our cuisine. The Netherlands is the perfect example of that: one of the best Indonesian dishes I have ever tasted, was served to me in Amsterdam. But it wasn’t Indonesian, it was a hybrid. In our cooking we don’t mind copying things from others, as long as it makes the dish better’.

Perhaps Australia and New Zealand, two other Western countries with (until now) a relatively successful corona approach, can serve as a bridge. As island nations they have an advantage over most European countries in the fight against corona, but what may also have played a role is that they more readily take over knowledge from the nearby East Asian countries and don’t see themselves as a world power.

Remco Breuker thinks it would be a good idea to send a learning mission instead of yet another trade mission to a country like South Korea. In the past few weeks, Korean media have interviewed him several times about the Dutch situation. ‘They can’t fathom that the Netherlands, as a leading country, is so much less able to fight the corona virus. But what they are particularly upset about is that they are so misunderstood and misrepresented, even by leading scientists in our country. Time and time again those stories about “why they are different”, instead of us acknowledging their effort and telling them: “You guys did a great job.”

Translation by Nicolette Marié

Reward this article

If you value this article, please show your appreciation with a small donation. This way you help keep journalism independent

“Total” € -