Bill Emmott considers why even poor Asian countries have outperformed the West in responding to the virus

Bill Emmott considers why even poor Asian countries have outperformed the West in responding to the virus

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was common to divide countries and their responses according to their political systems, with many attributing China’s success in controlling the virus to its authoritarianism. As of late 2020, however, it is clear that the real dividing line is not political but geographical. Regardless of whether a country is democratic or authoritarian, an island or continental, Confucian or Buddhist, communitarian or individualistic, if it is East Asian, Southeast Asian, or Australasian, it has managed COVID-19 better than any European or North American country.

While this line is not exactly hemispheric, it is close enough to be suggestive. Even Asia’s worst performers (in public-health terms) – such as the Philippines and Indonesia – controlled the pandemic more effectively than did Europe’s biggest and wealthiest countries. Notwithstanding reasonable doubts about the quality and accuracy of the reported mortality data in the case of the Philippines (and India), the fact remains that you were much likelier to die of COVID-19 in 2020 if you were European or American than if you were Asian.

Comprehensive, interdisciplinary research is urgently needed to explain these performance differentials. Because much of our current understanding is anecdotal and insufficiently pan-regional, it is vulnerable to political exploitation and distortion. To help all countries prepare for future biological threats, several specific questions need to be explored. First is the extent to which the experience of SARS, MERS, Avian flu, and other disease outbreaks in many Asian countries left a legacy of health-system preparedness and public receptiveness to anti-transmission messaging.

Clearly, some Asian countries have benefited from existing structures designed to prevent outbreaks of tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid, HIV/AIDS, and other infectious diseases. For example, as of 2014, Japan had 48,452 public-health nurses (PHNs), 7,266 of whom were employed in public-health centers where they could be mobilized quickly to assist with COVID-19 contact tracing. Although occupational definitions vary, one can compare these figures with those for England, where just 350-750 PHNs served 11,000 patients in 2014. (England’s population is roughly half the size of Japan’s.)

We also will need a better understanding of the effect of specific policies, such as rapidly closing borders and suspending international travel. Likewise, some countries did a much better job than others at protecting care homes and other facilities for the elderly – especially in countries (notably Japan and South Korea) with a high proportion of people over 65.

Moreover, the effectiveness of public-health communications clearly varied across countries, and it is possible that genetic differences and past programs of anti-tuberculosis vaccination may have helped limit the spread of the coronavirus in some areas. Only with rigorous empirical research will we have the information we need to prepare for future threats.

Many are also wondering what Asia’s relative success this year will mean for public policymaking and geopolitics after the pandemic. If future historians want a precise date for when the “Asian Century” began, they may be tempted to choose 2020, just as the US publisher Henry Luce dated the “American Century” from the onset of World War II.

But this particular comparison suggests that any such judgment may be premature. After all, Luce’s America was an individual superpower. Emerging victorious from the war, it would go on to claim and define its era (in competition with another superpower, the Soviet Union). The Asian Century, by contrast, will feature an entire continent comprising a wide range of countries.

In other words, it is not simply about China. To be sure, the rising new superpower has been notably successful in coping with the pandemic after its initial failures and lack of transparency. But its scope for asserting systemic superiority is circumscribed by the fact that so many other Asian countries have been equally successful without Chinese assistance.

The post-war comparison also may be premature for economic reasons. Asian countries’ economic performance in 2020 did not match the success of their pandemic response. While Vietnam, China, and Taiwan have beaten the rest of the world in terms of GDP growth, the United States has not fared too badly, despite its failure to manage the virus. With forecasts pointing to a 3.6% contraction for the year, the US is in better shape than every European economy, as well as Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and others in Asia. The difference is largely a function of interconnectedness: compared to the US, many Asian economies are more exposed to trade and travel bans, which cut deeply into the tourism industry.

Although China’s public-health and economic outcomes have been better than the West’s in 2020, it has neither found nor really sought a political or diplomatic advantage from the crisis. If anything, China has become more aggressive toward nearby neighbors and countries like Australia. This suggests that Chinese leaders are not even trying to build an Asian network of friends and supporters.

How China approaches the issue of international debt restructurings – especially those connected with its Belt and Road Initiative – will be a key test in 2021. But, of course, the US and the rest of the West also will be tested, and on a wide range of issues, from international finance to sociopolitical stability.

It may be too soon to announce a new historical epoch; but it is not too early to start absorbing the lessons of Asia’s public-health successes.


Bill Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, is the author, most recently, of Japan’s Far More Female Future. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020, and published here with permission.

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19 Comments

We will see China's decade for the next ten years, hard to tell whose century yet.

Well, it had better be the environment's, nature's, the climate's, the oceans' and all the other species that share this planet with us or we are all screwed.

The figures quoted in the first chart are very surprising. The low rates of deaths being reported in landlocked Asian nations seem...near miraculous. Indeed it would prompt me to say thay the WHO and other organisations should look into what's being reported. I'm happy to say that Asian countries may well have handled it better than the US, UK...maybe even Germany but the rates reported are so low it makes me think that there may just be gross underreporting. Easy for the WHO to independently verify though, just randomly test the deceased for Covid-19 in those countries and estimate the rate. Given the accusations levelled at the WHO about their relationship to some of those countries independently verifying that data may be extremely wise.

Indeed, upon inspection, many countries cited appear to not be releasing further data to support their claims. If something looks too good to be true...

https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus-testing

Yeah, and even if true it's junk interpretation of the data.

The population of those countries (especially India and Indonesia) skews much younger than the west. Even though we're not supposed to say it, covid statistically really only impacts the older groups. So per head of population, you'd naturally expect deaths to be lower in developing Asia.

The other irony is that in the poorer countries you are much likely to suffer from severe diseases like cholera, typhoid, and many other tropical ailments. Yet we in the west are obsessed only with covid deaths. I suspect covid is rife and endemic in many of those countries (and unreported due to lower testing rates) but is simply having less effect on people's to day lives.

Good point about the junk interpretation.
I suspect that the very low rates of obesity in East Asian nations may be a significant factor in lower mortality.

The Chinese are fast catching up on junk food as well.

Yeah, there was a study released today that indicates 5% of people in Wuhan have had Covid-19 which is far higher than the Chinese disclosed. International organisations are publishing data without verifying what they are publishing in any way, it is outrageous: https://bbc.in/3mUuYId

Spot on for Covid reporting part, but one must be pondering about that second GDP overshooting on the foot for NZ, sweet placebo medication for economic. But hey, most rock/pop star always demand their own version of pain relief, right? - and what was the result?

You may need to consider the people flaw. Central Asia is like Africa, not many westerners go there (compared to Europe and NA)

Muddled thinking:

If anything, China has become more aggressive toward nearby neighbors and countries like Australia. This suggests that Chinese leaders [CCP] are not even trying to build an Asian network of friends and supporters.

- CCP. Yes they are. The network is well paid for and compliant. Call it carrot & stick. Dependency.

Uyghurs
Falun Gong
Hong Kong
Domestic pandemic reporters
Influence over WHO.
Political funding
University funding
Fentanyl export of
IP appropriation
Wall Street funding mis appropriation.

Sixty Minutes
https://youtu.be/CkCFDDCkG1k
Matt Henderson

Street view of current China

https://youtu.be/19xkz9-ZpJY

Have any studies been done in regard to the (possible) correlation between obesity and Covid-related death?
Fat people die of all sorts of stuff at a faster rate.

One would suspect it's a significant factor.
I don't know about obesity studies, I recall seeing reporting of data from the UK that showed that overwhelmingly higher rates of mortality occured in migrant / lower income households. Obesity *might* be a factor in that, along with generally poorer health outcomes all round in those communities.

Yes, that is very likely to be one of the common co-morbidities in the US.

I think our Western way of greeting - shaking hands, hugs/kisses, etc. is another factor that upped transmission rates early on in the virus' introduction in Europe and the US - same is true of Brazil and other Latin American cultures. And, in many Asian countries people have worn masks routinely due to air pollution issues. So again, that cultural difference would have slowed transmission rates in the early (and indeed ongoing) stages of viral introduction.

No studies I've seen have focused on transmission rates, but I think that is key. Slow the transmission right down and the virus never gets a substantial foothold. And without that foothold, it doesn't mutate so successfully either.

A McDonalds index would be quite appropriate.

I wonder what trajectory NZ would have taken with a different approach. Instead of PCR testing we could have been testing for 50 ng/mL of vitamin D3 in the blood. TV adds could have educated the public on the importance of boosting immunity through proper sleep, nutrition, vitamin D, and Zinc supplementation. Government could have acted on sound clinical trials (c19study.com & covid19criticalcare.com) and distributing zinc and 2000-4000 IU of Vit D per day to people over the age of 70, with prophylactic treatment with ivermectin for severely at risk people. Of course a vaccine would be part of the mix, but not the be all and end all. We could have learned from the mistakes of New York that infection control is very important, and you don't send sick elderly patients back to rest homes. By boosting immunity and resilience we could have kept the economy and government balance sheet healthy. The borders could have opened during summer 2020, with no unproductive spending on quarantine hotels. Government could have concentrated proportionally more spending on keeping tourism education and SME's afloat. I wonder what NZ would have looked like if we'd done all of that?

It will soon be the Century of the Cryptos. The monetary and fiscal policies based on the current value systems are now useless for future economic management, as events have proved so far.
China may get a head start on the Cryptos but it is any body's game down the line...