Christopher Grimes is executive editor of Nikkei Asia.
When I arrived in Tokyo in 2017, the American inside me bristled at all of the rules in my new city. Waiting for the walk signal before crossing the street, even when there’s not a car in sight. Being told by uniformed road workers that I’m riding my bike too fast. Watching my kids being shushed by elderly people on the subway, even if they are not talking too loudly.
These very minor incidents got on my nerves, but my response was usually compliance coupled with silent internal protest. Even so, I began to wonder: why do these little things bother me so much? Was I turning into an Ugly American?
After some reflection about what, exactly, was gnawing at me about the rules that help support Japan’s orderly, well-organized society, it finally dawned on me: I simply hate being told what to do. And after watching the U.S. response to the COVID-19 crisis this year, it became clear that this is a trait I share with a sizable number of my fellow citizens.
Many Americans have reacted to experts who advised them to wear masks, engage in social distancing and avoid large gatherings with their own versions of the “don’t tell me what to do” sentiment. Anti-mask rallies — sometimes featuring armed militiamen — began in the spring and continued through December, even as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 approached 350,000.
I admit to having been reluctant to wear a mask, too, choosing to believe early reports from the west that said frequent hand-washing was more important than covering your face. But I got on board this spring after a Japanese colleague politely asked me to start wearing a mask in the office.
Viewed from Asia, the American psychodrama over wearing masks to ward off a rampaging, deadly epidemic has been surreal. Yes, masks are weird-looking and can be uncomfortable, especially in the summer months. But the mask debate in America has never really been about comfort. Instead, the 3.5-gram polypropylene face mask has taken a place alongside the AR-15 assault rifle, the cannabis plant and Mapplethorpe’s photographs as a proxy in America’s 250-year debate over liberty and its limits.
That this debate is constantly renewed and litigated is an important feature of American democracy. Yet proper leadership could have kept it from becoming a deadly distraction by emphasizing a consistent, science-led message. Instead, sensible recommendations by health officials were frequently undercut by the U.S. President, a mask-skeptic himself.
‘A culture of disease prevention’
In contrast, the COVID-19 response in much of Asia has been competent, focused and no-nonsense. Experience with SARS and H1N1 gave some Asian governments an appreciation of how serious such outbreaks can be. Many were quick to implement strict border control and quarantine measures, along with effective use of contact tracing. In some Asia-Pacific countries, mask-wearing and social distancing were not just recommendations — they were requirements.
Perhaps no country was more prepared than Taiwan. Its Centers for Disease Control went on high alert in late 2019, well before most of the world had even heard of COVID-19. It warned its citizens about a mysterious pneumonia outbreak in China on Dec. 31, 2019 — ahead of Beijing, which locked down Wuhan, the source of the outbreak, weeks later.
That early reaction — along with speedy implementation of quarantines and what a Taiwanese epidemiologist called “a culture of disease prevention” of mask-wearing and hand-washing — headed off disaster. Taiwan has had just 797 cases and seven deaths from COVID-19 in a population of about 24 million.
In China, the initial response was slower. But the lockdown of Wuhan appears to have been highly effective, if remorseless, once it began. China controlled the outbreak using all the tools available to an authoritarian state, including surveillance. Its economy has already mounted a strong recovery.
Many of the Americans who oppose COVID restrictions do so out of legitimate concerns about the damage to the economy and citizens’ livelihoods. But the experience of Taiwan and China — along with communist Vietnam — show that true economic recovery can only happen after the virus is under control.
The COVID response has been effective in other Asian nations, too, notably Singapore and Thailand. South Korea and Japan have been far more successful in containing the virus than Europe and North America, though cases in both countries have been rising in recent weeks.
The contrast between the response in Asia and that of the U.S. and much of Europe can be seen as a classic example of the East-West cultural divide. Western culture tends to emphasize the rights of the individual, while in the east societal harmony is more highly valued.
Yik-Ying Teo, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health in Singapore, says cultural factors played a significant role in controlling the virus in the region, especially during the first phase of the crisis in East Asia.
“Societies like Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan have a greater appreciation of the collective group, so when there is a crisis individuals make decisions based on how they will affect the community,” he said in an interview. “In the West if you ask people to curb their behavior, they will ask ‘Why are you challenging my constitutional right? It’s my right to do this.'”
He noted, however, that New Zealand and Australia have also been effective in controlling COVID-19. “In terms of cultural norms, both are more aligned to Europe and North America, but they were willing and able to enforce rules, including mask wearing. There was political will… leaders were willing to say, ‘We will penalize you for not wearing a mask.'”
If you believe that this is the Asian Century (as the editors of this publication do) then the COVID-19 experience provides plenty of evidence to support the case. To be sure, all Asian countries have suffered a human and economic toll — India and Indonesia have seen horrific loss of life — but on the whole Asia has managed the COVID-19 crisis better than the west.
It is not hard, then, to view this as a crossover moment, one where Asian competence prevailed while the west — most notably the U.S. — failed. Yet there is also a strong argument that this crossover began at the dawn of the 21st Century.
America’s reputation for competence began to lose its shine well before Donald Trump became President. Voting machines failed in the 2000 election (not the last time this century that a U.S. presidential election was carried out under a cloud.) Then came the poorly conceived and disastrously executed war in Iraq, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina and the excesses that led to the 2008 global financial crisis. Such failures have become effective talking points for China as it rises to superpower status.
Amid these lapses at the governmental level, however, the U.S. continued its lead in technology, spawning the iPhone, Facebook, Twitter, Tesla and Google Maps. This year, Western biotech companies, led by BioNTech of Germany, have been leaders in the lightning-fast development of a vaccine for COVID-19. China is investing heavily to close the technological gap in the coming decades.
The incoming Biden administration hopes to improve America’s standing in the world by repairing global alliances and strengthening democracy; the president-elect is also reportedly appointing an “Asia czar” to promote U.S. interests and values in the region. This appointee will most likely be operating from a point of diminished U.S. credibility.
Given Asia’s relative success in fighting COVID, it is worth asking whether power and influence will start flowing from East to West as a result. As in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, China is likely to lead the global economic recovery. Powered by domestic consumption and rebounding exports, China’s economy is forecast to grow 2.1% this year and 8.2% in 2021 — its highest growth since 2012, according to a recent survey of 35 economists by Nikkei and Nikkei Quick News.
This could help China in its battle with the U.S. for global influence, especially if Biden struggles in his effort to return the American economy to its feet. Thus far, however, China has failed miserably at converting its COVID-19 success into goodwill, choosing to start ugly disputes with its neighbors instead.
More broadly, though, experts say Asia will emerge from the COVID crisis as the growth engine of the global economy. According to projections from EY, the Asia-Pacific region will soon make up half of the world’s gross domestic product.
“Asia Pacific’s ability to manage through COVID’s disruption will put it in a very strong position over the next 20 years to really develop its footprint as the dominant area of the global economy,” Patrick Winter, EY Asia-Pacific area managing partner, said in a recent interview with Nikkei Asia.
Given the turmoil in the U.S. about masks and much else, it’s unlikely that many Americans are paying much attention to Asia and the lessons from its COVID successes. But the experience of being an American in Asia during this crisis has helped clarify some of my own thinking about the relative strengths of east and west.
At a very basic level, I understand the instincts of anti-mask demonstrators who want to make a stand for the liberty of the individual to make his or her own decisions. I buy the American myth that a bullheaded, rebellious spirit has led to some of the country’s greatest successes, whether it’s Chuck Berry and rock ‘n’ roll or Steve Jobs and Apple.
But great nations also need to pull together occasionally, requiring individuals to sacrifice some liberty for the collective good. That can include little things, like waiting at the traffic signal when there is no traffic, slowing the bike down at busy intersections — or wearing a mask to protect the lives of strangers.