As the coronavirus sweeps across Europe and the United States, it seems that Asian countries are handling the crisis more successfully. South Korea deployed mass testing to control the virus and Singapore has recorded zero deaths with one of the oldest populations in the world. To explain the success of some Asian countries, many commentators point to their strong governments and “lockdown” measures. However, South Korea never even locked down its most affected city (cafes, bars and gyms remained open) and Singapore mandated “self-quarantining”. Indeed, we have to look beyond the idea of “strong governments” to explain Asia’s relative success.
What does this mean?
To be sure, not all Asian countries are successfully dealing with the coronavirus. Across Southeast Asia, in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, the response has been chaotic and disorganized. The strongest responses have been from East Asian countries, including Singapore and Vietnam, in what Bruno Maçães calls the “Confucian cosmopolis”. Largely based on the 2003 SARS pandemic, these countries have deployed “early warning systems” with “fast response policy”. Taiwan, for example, took quarantine measures as soon as the first Taiwanese became infected. Most importantly, besides strong government responses, there is broad-based support in these Asian countries for drastic measures like social distancing and GPS tracking. Indeed, rather than a model for an authoritarian state, South Korea defines its model as a “dynamic response system for open democratic societies”.
The coronavirus reveals that high trust in Asian countries leads to strategy that is more effective. Interestingly, one consequence of high trust in government is a different role of technology. To battle the coronavirus, the most interesting innovation has emerged from countries such as China (automatic temperature detection, Alipay Health Code) and South Korea (drive-through testing pods, self-monitoring apps). As technology is rooted in cosmotechnics, the current crisis forces us to look beyond the coronavirus to imagine a different technological future in Asia. We can expect Asian tech companies to benefit, as Asian governments and citizens are more willing to experiment with innovative technological solutions to the coronavirus.