Opinion and Editorial

How the East beat the West in containing Covid

Dipankar Gupta
Filed on November 4, 2020

South Korea, Taiwan or Japan are hardly illiberal, yet they have a much better report card when it comes to handling Covid-19 than democracies in West Europe and the US.

The Covid-19 pandemic has obviously taught medical sciences several lessons, but it has also had a profound unsettling impact on a range of social sciences. For example, the spread of this disease and the way different societies have dealt with it has left political theory deeply puzzled. More pertinently, why have Eastern democracies, such as South Korea or Taiwan, done a much better job in containing this pandemic than Western democracies, such as France or the US?

The old distinction between dictatorship and democracy is now unworkable because China, with its huge economic success, has emerged as a major theoretical disruptor. The more recent dichotomy separating liberal and illiberal democracies doesn’t take us far either. South Korea, Taiwan or Japan are hardly illiberal, yet they have a much better report card when it comes to handling Covid-19 than democracies in West Europe and the US.

But why? How can one thread this needle?

In the East, the Covid-19 surge was met more effectively because people abided by state regulations on physical distancing and mask wearing more readily than, say, in France or the UK. West Europe, including the US, instead, saw significant resistance to such restrictions and hence the pandemic kept growing there. Even today, there are instances of protestors, in very large numbers, who believe these restrictions are undemocratic invasions of their right to privacy.

Further, in South Korea, Singapore, Japan or Taiwan, for example, the population also willingly submitted to mass testing and contact tracing. Japan does not have legal rights to enforce lockdowns or contact tracing; even so, the state effectively implemented both. Obviously, this would entail a heightened degree of state surveillance, but that did not seem to matter much in these democracies.

In Western democracies, from Spain to the US, the situation has been quite different. Obviously, societies that have not taken kindly to relatively non-invasive advisories, such as social distancing and mask wearing, will find contact tracing very difficult. No surprise then that in the West both mass testing and contact tracing have fared badly. They were popularly captioned, in several quarters, as edicts of a ‘big brother’ state.

The European Union Trade Commissioner for Internal Market voiced this fear when he said that fighting Covid-19 is fine but “we will not compromise on our values and privacy requirements”. On the other hand, democracies of the East, from Japan to Singapore, have done very well. Many had learnt from the earlier SARS breakout, but neither then nor now have they faced popular opposition to the restrictions the state imposed to fight the pandemics.

It would also be risky to take the distinction between liberal and illiberal democracies as mutually exclusive categories. At the weed level, there is so much of one in the other. It really boils down to the extent of illiberalism and not the complete lack of liberalism. For instance, the US president enjoys vast powers under the National Emergencies Act; in France too, Article 16 of their constitution gives the president ‘exceptional powers’ in times of crisis.

In Sweden there is little room, actually hardly any at all, for such provisions to apply. This is not so for neighbouring Finland which allows for the curtailment of fundamental rights, but in a timebound fashion if the country is in deep trouble. Therefore, one should not take this distinction between liberal and illiberal democracies as absolute. There is the exceptional state, behind every unexceptional one, hoping to control the mind, failing which, the body.

The slide rule should also apply when we analyse why some Eastern democracies have done better than Western democracies in effecting mass mask wearing and contact tracing. This observation becomes theoretically tantalising as we find instances of acquiescence and defiance, combining in different amounts, in all democracies. East or West, none of these democracies under consideration is, however, a sham front of totalitarian rule.

Obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic is a rare historical occurrence and, hopefully, it will remain one. Nevertheless, a chance event is often rich with scientific potentiality. It was chance that brought about antibiotics and chance that led to the discovery of X-Rays, and chance, again, with World War II that brought about major breakthroughs in physics, mathematics, chemistry, even fishing. The meteor that is said to have caused the Ice Age was a chance occurrence too.

Liberty was first symbolised by the French Revolution in the form of Marianne holding aloft a flaming torch. It has since become the motherboard, quite literally, of all symbols of liberty. In pre-airplane days, the first thing that migrants saw as they sailed into the US was the Statue of Liberty, once again a gift from France. Marianne was, and is, the prime symbol of a united France well before ideas of nation-state began to gain prominence there.

In Western democracies, liberalism is the principal feature. This is why constitutions in the West emphasise, most of all, that citizens be protected from arbitrary state power. The individual is supreme and to restrain the state from abusing its powers is a major concern in these democracies. It is this idea of liberty that allows the American gun lobbyists so much influence. Nobody, they argue, can take away the right to buy a gun, a rifle, even a rocket launcher.

The American constitution clearly spells out the importance of negative liberties over positive ones. Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court said in a landmark judgment: ‘The men who wrote the Bill of Rights were not concerned that government might do too little for the people but that it might do too much to them.’ According to Posner, the constitution protects citizens from state oppression, without imposing positive obligations on the state.

The 14th Amendment of 1868 cemented the view that Americans, first and foremost, need to be protected from their government. There is a famous quote, popularly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, which says: “When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When people fear the government, there is tyranny.” This quote carries a strong European flavour and not coincidentally, Jefferson spent long years in France.

Of course, Jefferson was much enamoured by the arts, customs, manner and mores of Paris. Not surprisingly, the American constitution owes a lot to 18th century French thought. The idea of separation of powers came from Montesquieu, from Rousseau, popular sovereignty, from Voltaire, the separation of church from state. America’s famous Bill of Rights, too, was drafted by Abbé Sieyès and Marquis de Lafayette in consultation, predictably, with Thomas Jefferson.

The very idea of ‘natural rights’ is also utterly French from start to finish. Republican ideals were set in motion by the 1789 French Revolution and soon spread across Europe colouring even nationalist aspirations there. Not just France, the Italian Risorgimento (or ‘rising again’) too began in 1815 as a republican movement, after the Napoleonic wars, before it culminated as a national movement in the 1870s.

Eastern democracies are different from such liberal democracies, but they are not illiberal. They can best be characterised by the term ‘deontic’. ‘Deontic’ is appropriate because it stands for obligation and binding commitment. In ‘deontic’ democracies, it is not the liberty of the individual but duties of the state that occupies the pride of place. In a deontic democracy, the state bears the responsibility for a society’s wellbeing.

The principal reason why such democracies are more deontic than liberal is because they emerged after long subjugation under colonial rule. This made the fight for independence the major thrust of their long-drawn mobilisations. We can see this aspect reflected in the constitutions of a number of deontic democracies from India, to South Korea, to Singapore. The first order of business here was to unite as a people and throw out the foreign oppressor.

Unlike a liberal democracy, in this case, the newly emergent state required muscle and sinew which only positive laws can build. This state has obligations to its ‘people’, the authentic sons of the soil. For example, the constitution of South Korea says it is the state’s duty to make sure that people realise their full development and ‘elevate’ their quality of life. How different this is from Jefferson’s vision of a liberal state which is all bare bones with no meat on them.

In Taiwan, along similar lines, their constitution is expected to ‘provide services that are essential to the well-being of society’. Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of modern Singapore, proudly said: “If Singapore is a nanny state, then I am proud to have fostered one.” He also commented, very tellingly for our purpose, that “what Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value freedoms and liberties of the individual”.

In deontic democracies, the state has a job of work to perform. This is evident both in their formal constitutions as well as in the expectations people have from their representatives. So, if the state recommends masks and contact tracing for the greater good, the popular mindset in these countries does not deem such measures as anti-democratic.This is why the term ‘deontic democracy’ is truly appropriate for many Eastern democracies.

In none of these Eastern, deontic democracies, has there been any significant show of protest against the Covid-19 induced measures. As the state, first and foremost, is supposed to look out for what is best for its people, what is a little privacy invasion between friends? The state is also expected to know more than individual citizens. It is the repository of greater knowledge garnered from experts and with those who have experience in the field.

The deontic state may deliver faultily, it may not have its officials in place, it may be profoundly inept, but it will not be taken to task for taking up the task of acting for the whole. Indeed, if the state were to shirk from this responsibility, it would be seen as gross negligence of official duty. In a deontic democracy, the state can be forgiven for taking the wrong action, even an incorrect action, but inaction is unpardonable, especially in times of acute social stress.

Therefore, unlike most liberal democracies, when the state in a deontic democracy issues a directive for the common good, citizens do not immediately see that as a hostile act. They do not reflexively protest against these measures and view them as infringing on their rights as citizens. If the state says let’s wear masks or we need to know your cellphone co-ordinates for testing and contract tracing, there is no concerted ideological rebuff to these overtures.

Once again, it is important to caution that liberal and deontic democracies are not binary opposites but only as starting points for analytical reasons. In the real world they are best placed along a continuum, just as we had earlier advocated for illiberal and liberal democracies. If seen along a sliding scale, the contrary tensions within these states become more amenable to analysis for the ‘logic of the field’ (to quote Giorgio Agamben) comes alive.

There is also a gradual shading off when we look at the principal thrust engines propelling liberal and deontic democracies. In deontic democracies, in the main, it was most important to drive out the ‘foreign devil’, the colonial forces. From the fulfilment of this urge, and only in some cases, came democracy. The 19th century Meiji Restoration made Japan an exception, but its democracy today was forced on her by the Allied powers in the post-World War II treaty.

From anti-colonialism came the nation state, but not all of them became democracies; India was foremost and the first to take this path. The passions fuelling nation-state ideologies put democracy in the background. India, once again, was a rare exception as its national movement also forwarded democratic ideals, such as minority protection and the abolition of untouchability. Even so, it was freedom from colonial rule that was the primary goal.

The arrival of independence in all East Asian democracies also came with the awareness that there were external enemies one had to constantly guard against. This is why the laws in non-Western deontic democracies allow for greater state intervention than they do in the West. The fear that once independence is lost, all is lost was real. There is no scope after that for any sort of development, political or economic, and the fledgling nation-state would lie wasted.

This sentiment was clearly expressed by Lee Kuan Yew when he said: “Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore.” Independent India’s integrity was threatened right at the start by Partition, followed by the Pakistan army’s infiltration into Kashmir. They didn’t just throw a brick through the window, they wanted to take over the house as well.

In the face of all this, the Mahatma’s proposals for a village-based, decentralised administration found very little support even among those who were, otherwise, clearly Gandhian. As the Indian state was far from being in a tranquil spot, a loose federalism would not do either. It was necessary to forge a union of states with a strong, weaponised centre armed with authoritarian powers to combat if and when any threat arose to India’s sovereignty.

Fears of this order led to the acceptance of various forms of preventive detention in Eastern deontic democracies. They felt their sovereignty was still under threat for there were enemy forces outside who might be aided by fifth columnists and traitors within. The threat need not always be a military one. It could also be economic in character for there were rich countries out there chafing at the bit for having lost control over their former colonies.

Given this background, Eastern deontic democracies formally granted their states greater powers. This is why the old liberal formulations that placed strict restrictions on state activities are just not suitable here and need to be tropicalised. The conditions in postcolonial countries were very different;sovereignty had just been won and external threat still imminent. Additionally, the state also had the responsibility of uplifting millions left knock-kneed impoverished by colonialism.

As the state was the guarantor of these goals, the state should be given adequate powers as well. The state was expected to protect its citizens as the foundations of the nation-state were still fragile. In these Eastern democracies, the state was not the way Jefferson viewed it; the kind that should be kept strictly within bounds by negative sanctions. Deontic states had to be activist and ready to face external threats and power much needed social development too.

The prominence accorded to negative laws that curb state activities and give the individual the pride of place is the hallmark of a liberal state. This may seem like an idealised statement, but there is no denying that this attitude routinely courses through the ideological veins of a large number of citizens in Western democracies. This accounts for the quick trigger resentment among sizeable sections in these countries when masks and contact tracing are insisted upon.

In Eastern democracies, people expect the state to step up and do things for the benefit of its people. This sentiment has often been criticised as an extension of a medieval mindset where the state is the perennial provider and people are forever supplicants, never true citizens. Such a depiction may well be a caricature, but the state does carry moral obligations to its people and the people expect the state to deliver, not as subjects, but as citizens.

The idealised liberal version of the state is not sensitive enough to adapt to the conditions under which democracy came to the East. Where nationalism emerged from the throes of anti-colonialism, democracy came in after a lag, sometimes a very lengthy pause, for example, in South Korea. Nevertheless, democracy, it must be repeated, was not the initial popular impulse even in those countries which eventually became democratic; nationalism was.

In order to understand the ideological founts of liberal and deontic democracies we must read their pre-histories, but once again with a sliding scale. Though their pasts are quite different in emphasis and location, they are not always discretely separable. In the West, to put it bluntly, and allowing for finer distinctions to come up later, democracy preceded nationalism, but in deontic democracies, nationalism preceded democracy.

To a large extent, this has conditioned the difference between these two democracies and what people in each expect from their respective governments. In Western liberal democracies republican aspirations were lit before nationalism became the leading concern. Consequently, negative sanctions against the state are noticeably prominent in European law and constitutions, but not so in later deontic democracies where nationalism came first.

A teaser trailer on 19th century Western European history might help. Britain is always an outlier, but consider the major popular surges from France to Spain around 1848. These years were called the ‘Springtime of the Peoples’. Its famed participants, the legendary ‘Fortyeighters’, were all high on democratic rights. It is this trait that marked not just the Paris uprisings but also the unification of Italy and Germany and led to Louis Philippe’s abdication.

Some believe that this stir actually began in 1832 with the Hambacher Fest where black and red, the colours of the German flag of today, were first displayed. These surges of democracy were expressed almost simultaneously all over Europe, even if one were to quibble over the exact dates of each. Democracy led the charge against monarchical rule and absolutism in Europe before nationalism gained prominence on that continent.

It is widely acknowledged that the Italian Risorgimento, or uprising, brought in nationalism, but Giuseppe Mazzini was first and foremost a republican. On several occasions, especially when his return to his native Piedmont was in the air, it is his republican convictions that kept him from making alliances. Giuseppe Garibaldi bartered away his romantic image as a guerilla warrior for the cause of fashioning a republic, earning the wrath of many in Lombardi.

The famous historian Benedetto Croce was convinced that the Risorgimento in Italy was the triumph of republicanism and democratic ideals and that nationalism rode on their waves. In Italy, again, just as in America, the ideological charge came from the French Revolution. In the Piedmont and Lombardi regions of Italy, Garibaldi’s ‘Redshirts’ finally won against the more conservative faction led by Count Cavour.

Germany stood a little apart from both Britain and France, as well as from Italy, which is why the sliding scale, referred to earlier, is so important for our presentation. At first glance it would appear that German people in the principalities that Otto von Bismarck later unified as Lesser Germany were awash with liberal aspirations. A closer examination tells us that Germans, more than other West Europeans, were drawn to nationalism in a somewhat greater measure.

Like nationalism elsewhere, East and West, German nationalism too began with romantic idealism. In this case, it is said, that the first clear expression of it can be found Johann Fichte’s 1808 Addresses to the German Nation. The Napoleonic wars where the Germans suffered heavily certainly hastened the rise of nationalism among them, leading in 1818 to a ‘customs union’ that lasted till 1866. It was this nationalistic fervour that supported Bismarck’s state activism and welfarism.

The German state, quite distinctively, was enjoined to think of the collective and that citizens were also encouraged to realise themselves through the state. This ideological riff is a constant theme in Germany and can be clearly traced to the Hegelian vision of the ethical will. Here, the individual is aware of objective duties, but the state provides conditions to actualise the free expression of a person’s will which, under proper guidance, can reach to universality.

German nationalists did not reject republican thought, but their motivations to join in mid-19th century European uprisings were not exactly of the French or American kind. German nationalism was also led by intellectuals, but in this case they promoted inherent traits and instincts of German people, more than reason, as vehicles of a just order. There were promoters of republican ideals too in their ranks, nationalism was very powerful too.

The intensity of German romantic tradition is very well known and has sometimes been given a kind of mythical status. In these renditions, blonde Teutonic beasts roam the forests. They are gentle and forgiving yet ferocious and daring, they are given to poetry, music and the arts but equally adept at philosophy and higher intellectual vocations. The Germans must, therefore, have a state that is equally worthy of the innate noble and virtuous traits of its people.

This background prepares us to appreciate why the German state holds a certain aura among its citizens which is of a different order than in many other Western countries. To a large extent it might also explain why it is in Germany that we find the most mouth and nose coverers in Western Europe post-Covid-19. A large majority of Germans have not sought philosophical reasons either to protest against such state recommendations.

Abiding by state injunctions and wearing masks in public or even yielding to track tracing procedures could also arise from fear. Such a possibility cannot be discounted, but in the deontic states we are referring to, this is not a live feature. It is to take care of this objection that China was not brought into the picture in this essay because its people shudder to disobey.

What sets apart the deontic states in this regard is that the acceptance of state directives is driven by the belief that they are legitimate and originating from a credible source. That such measures affect freedom and individual rights negatively is never a serious consideration. It is highly likely that many in deontic democracies may resent these policies and view them as cumbersome and inconvenient, but that is a different matter.

Then there are other exhibitions in deontic democracies where masks and physical distancing are not obeyed, nor is there adequate contact tracing. But these arise from incompetence and bureaucratic mismanagement. In many poorer societies, there is also a serious asymmetry of information flow. For this reason masses of underprivileged people just do not realise the dangers they put themselves in by not following even the basic steps in pandemic control.

Then there are others who are very cynical about these exercises, beginning from quarantining to extensive hand washing and physical distancing because their living conditions are so dire. In working-class quarters there is neither space, nor water, nor wherewithal to observe many of these recommendations. Therefore, when somebody in a slum is told to observe pandemic-related norms, there is every likelihood of such instructions meeting with utter cynicism.

All of these objections put together are a species apart from opposing Covid-19 restrictions on grounds of democratic principle. When pandemic norms raise fears of liberties being eroded, they are met with incomprehension by most in the deontic democratic world. They just wonder what democracy has to do with all of this. In a deontic democracy the state is supposed to energetically provide on all occasions, especially during national crises.

The inability of either side to comprehend each other is probably because the political cultures of democracy are different and not because one is more or less democratic than the other. Nor is it, as several Western commentators sneeringly assume, that people from the East are not as committed to democracy as they are.

At the end of the day, what hurts Western sensitivities most is that Eastern deontic democracies handled the pandemic way better than they did. Europe and America are so accustomed to being judged as superior that the systematic setbacks they encountered in pandemic control was a rather bitter pill for them to swallow.

Dipankar Gupta is a sociologist and public intellectual. He is the author of, among other titles, Q.E.D.: India Tests Social Theory. —Open magazine

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