Social Culture is driving outcomes across Asia. Do we need to mirror their approach?

By grave toovey: culture Columnist

Throughout the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, countries the world over have been scrutinised closely in order to assess the abilities of their respective governments to quash the spread of the virus and restore a sense of normality to everyday life.

From the offset, there appeared to be a sense of complacency amongst Western powers regarding their future dealing with Covid: this was a “Chinese virus” (as it was consistently branded by Donald Trump), brought about by the common practices of storing meat in so-called “wet markets” which led to the idea that East Asian countries were less developed, unclean, and a breeding ground for disease. From amongst brewing anti-Asian sentiment, out crept the idea that this would never happen to us.

Of course, the Western world was not awarded such luck and while Mainland China has managed to reduce their total transmissions to 0 by May 29 after 90,000 cases in total, while the rest of the world was dealing with ever-increasing numbers, reaching heights of 1.5m in the UK alone. While China is still dealing with local clusters of Covid in highly populated cities such as Beijing and Qingdao, the scale of the problem is practically negligible compared to Europe and the Americas.

The same can be said for South Korea, a country widely overshadowed by its Northern counterpart, which shocked the Western world by effectively stamping out Covid very early on despite seemingly having the short end of the stick when the virus broke out amongst religious groups. To date, South Korea has seen 510 deaths, a stark contrast to the UK’s climbing number of 55,230 lives lost.

Of course, there are rather simple explanations for this such as Boris Johnson’s reluctance to plunge the UK into lockdown when cases were initially starting to climb in comparison to the decision to lockdown the Chinese province of Hubei very soon after the virus outbreak in Wuhan. As well as this, there have been countless errors made when it comes to mass testing for the virus, as well as the fatal flaws within the UK’s track and trace system which were not present in China’s on iteration of this.

This, however, does not account for the reaction of the general public to the pandemic and in many ways, the reaction of the people of countries such as the US has been a major culprit when it comes to fuelling the spread of the virus.

In countries like the US and the UK, a common attitude among many members of the public has been that of concern for people as individuals. This is in reference to ideas such as “I don’t want to wear a mask” or “I don’t want to stay at home. I want to see my family” with seemingly minimal regard as to what this would mean for others. While the British public is increasingly thankful towards the NHS, the desire to crowd pubs and mix between households the second that this was permitted suggests that, for some, the NHS comes second to their own personal wants and desires.

To date, South Korea has seen 510 deaths, a stark contrast to the UK’s climbing number of 55,230 lives lost.

This has manifested itself in worldwide anti-lockdown protests, as well as the insistence that the widespread use of masks is a breach of civil liberties despite the scientifically corroborated fact that wearing them protects others far more than they protect oneself.

This all stems from the individualistic notion that people should be independent and reliant on themselves as opposed to everyone taking steps to ensure the welfare of others in line with themselves and their own personal interests. This is a political and social ideology prevalent in Western society which promotes the idea that someone is “good” if they stand out and advocate for what they believe in as an individual without putting the needs of the group ahead of their own; even if this means propagating the spread of a fatal disease, it seems.

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In opposition to this, China in particular is a highly collectivist country which means social norms focus on putting others’ needs before one’s own as well as harbouring concern for the wellbeing of others in line with your own. This provides a seemingly straightforward explanation as to why they dealt with Covid so well; if it is of utmost importance that everyone takes the needs of others on board, there is little room for debate when it comes to wearing masks, maintaining distance, and staying at home when it is necessary. Which in turn explains why people in Wuhan are visiting water parks and music festivals, dining out – albeit in masks – while the rest of the world is confined to their homes.

There is a lot that the rest of the world can learn from China as well as all of the countries who have adopted a similar philosophy towards life as them – Japan, South Korea in particular who have been hit less than many countries despite being hit first.

While it is not possible, nor feasible, to change a nation’s philosophical outlook overnight (especially when this is entirely innate), it is possible to look to places like China to see what we can do to reach the place they are at now. Perhaps the government could benefit the UK by approaching the use of lockdowns as a way to help others as opposed to restricting everyone needlessly. Perhaps the US could educate anti-maskers by demonstrating how masks actually can save lives as opposed to being a mere inconvenience to the wearer.

However it is done, there is little doubt that the Western world has done something wrong and that a shift in perspective is needed to bring people away from their own personal concerns for themselves and the ways in which restrictions affect them negatively as opposed to how they benefit others. Until then, it seems that we will be fighting a losing battle against a virus that thrives on our need to fend for ourselves above all else.

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