Why should western culture go on

Why don't we learn from Asian countries : Corona reveals western arrogance

Jürgen Gerhards is Professor of Macrosociology at the Free University of Berlin. Michael Zürn is Director of the Global Governance Department at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) and Professor of International Relations at the Free University of Berlin.

The record of liberal democracies in Europe in fighting pandemics is not very good compared to the Asian countries. This applies not only to the authoritarian countries of China and Thailand and the semi-authoritarian city-state of Singapore, but also to the democratic countries of Taiwan and South Korea. The infection numbers are not easily comparable due to the different test intensities.

The differences can be seen in the number of people who died. For example, while in South Korea, with a population of 52 million, fewer than 1,500 people have died to date, in Germany, with a population of 83 million, more than 60,000 people have died. The differences between other European and Asian countries (for example between Great Britain and Taiwan) are even more pronounced.

The aforementioned Asian companies are also impressively successful in terms of the economic and social consequences of the crisis. Precisely because the spread of the virus was contained very early on, life was able to continue after a relatively short interruption.

For the sake of simplicity, let's stick with the comparison of Germany and South Korea: South Korea's gross domestic product fell by just one percent in 2020 compared to the previous year, while the German economy shrank by five percent. In order to prevent an even greater burglary, the Federal Republic has also borrowed a great deal; this is certainly a sensible measure at the moment; however, it will severely limit the state's ability to act for other political tasks in the future.

There are a multitude of factors that help explain the success of Asian countries. Some cannot be influenced by the political action of the governments.

This includes the island location, as in the case of Taiwan or the largely seclusion in the case of South Korea, previous experience with pandemics and the infrastructure that has been built up as a result, or the habit of protecting oneself in public with masks, which was already established before Corona. Added to this is the lower average age of the population in these countries, which has a positive effect on the number of fatalities.

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However, these differences alone are not enough to explain the success. The Asian countries have taken measures that were not really discussed in this country because they were labeled as interfering with the informational self-determination of citizens at an early stage. Above all, this includes the use of new technologies for the rapid identification of those who are infected so that the virus cannot be passed on.

Quarantine is controlled by radio cell location

In Taiwan, for example, travelers have to go into strict quarantine for 14 days, either in a contract hotel of the government or privately and controlled by radio cell location. Infected people in particular are strictly isolated for the period in which they are contagious; this is also controlled and severely sanctioned if the quarantine is not complied with, while in this country the isolation of infected people is left to them themselves.

The measures also include fast electronic tracing of contacts with infected people and timely, digitized notification of all potential contact persons. There is no question that such a policy represents an at least temporary invasion of privacy. Accordingly, such measures must be subjected to strict controls; Above all, it must be ensured that all data is deleted reliably and after a very short time.

In this country there was no discussion as to whether something could be taken over

Nevertheless, it may be that, on closer examination, individual measures would have turned out to be a disproportionate encroachment on civil liberties. But that's where the problem starts: There was no discussion about it, let alone a systematic examination, although the Federal Republic, like many other Western societies, could have learned from these measures.

Such learning according to the best practice method did not and does not take place. Germany could certainly learn from the digitization of schools in these countries so that at least the negative consequences of school closings can be alleviated.

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The successes of some Asian countries in fighting pandemics are no exception. Similar success stories have been heard from other areas of society for two decades. These include the economic growth rates and the successes in combating absolute poverty. Dieter Senghaas described these processes as catching up developments.

Similar to how the continental European countries caught up with Great Britain's lead in the course of the industrial revolution at the end of the 19th century, comparable processes are currently taking place in non-European regions.

The "late starters" have the advantage that they can learn from the mistakes of the "early starters". However, it is overlooked that the early starters also have to learn from the late starters. If this is not done, there is a risk of falling behind in international competition and dealing with avoidable problems.

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Great Britain experienced this in the 20th century. While the growth rates of a country like India can still be ignored with the reference to the catching up development and the higher value added in absolute terms with one percent growth in Germany, disinterest turns into narrow-mindedness when the social indicators of the catching up countries are also better in absolute terms .

We can now observe this absolute superiority of the late starters in the pandemic. Not wanting to learn from their success can only be understood as an expression of continued colonial arrogance.

There were only comparisons, if at all, with the USA

The public reporting of the pandemic is symptomatic of the low awareness of the successful policies of other countries, especially in the news programs on public television, which continue to have very high audience figures. Every evening the reporting revolves around one's own country. The internal perspective is only very rarely abandoned and reports are made about the corona policy of those countries that have contained the spread of the virus.

Until late autumn 2020, the narrative prevailed in this country that Germany was in an excellent position to fight the pandemic. The comparative view mostly went west and chose the USA under Trump as a reference point. The overload of funeral directors or long queues in front of the emergency rooms in American hospitals were reported in high quality.

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There was no view of Asia. And when it was reported, it was usually with a condescending undertone: They used authoritarian measures to inappropriately restrict citizens' rights, a path that is incompatible with the self-image of the West.

At the latest since December and the beginning of the long partial lockdown, however, the massive restrictions on freedom in this country cannot be overlooked.

Although one can boast of having protected the informational self-determination of the citizens with a non-functioning Corona app, at the same time shops, schools, cultural institutions and restaurants were closed, freedom of movement and contact options within one's own four walls were restricted and demonstrations were prohibited: Measures that deeply interfere with civil liberties. In comparison, the informational state control to which the citizens of South Korea or Taiwan have to submit seems almost like a marginal note.

The advisory bodies are purely national

But not only the corona reporting revolves around the national navel, the scientific advisory bodies of politics also show a strange selectivity. They not only reflect the discourse hegemony of virologists, epidemiologists and medical professionals, because the social sciences are largely excluded. These are primarily purely national bodies. To the best of our knowledge, experts from successful countries are not systematically included.

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Unfortunately, the pandemic is not an isolated incident. The West’s ignorance of successful policies in Asian countries is also evident in other policy areas, such as education. Since the publication of the first Pisa study 20 years ago, the mediocre performance of German schoolchildren compared to their peers in many Asian countries has been known. Here, too, the stage of catching-up development has long since been abandoned, and large parts of Western Europe urgently need to rework.

There is sufficient scientific research that education is the all-important resource for innovation and the future of a society. Systematic learning from the educational policy practices of successful Asian countries was largely absent. Finland as a comparatively successful country in Europe was toured by all school politicians and praised to heaven.

The successes of the Asian democracies were largely ignored. The reference to a supposedly different, collectivist and authoritarian culture legitimized this.

High time to get involved in pragmatic global learning

Where does the ignorance come from? The American sociologist William Ogburn formulated his theory of the “cultural lag” in 1922, which can help explain the ignorance of the West regarding the development of Asian countries. Ogburn assumed that our perceptions, cultural interpretations and evaluations lag behind the actual development of societies.

In the ignorance of the West about the successes of Asian countries in fighting pandemics, traditional images of others and oneself that have long been outdated and often still from the colonial era seem to be activated.

These include ideas of backwardness, authoritarian and collectivist orientations on the one hand and attributes of self-determination, individualism and progress attributed to the West on the other. Reality looks (and has probably always looked) different. It is high time to throw the traditional narratives of postcolonial ignorance overboard and engage in pragmatic global learning.

In this context, one would like to see better involvement of foreign advisors from countries that have successfully contained the pandemic and regular media reporting on the corona policies of other countries. This could then also lead to an effective and informed pandemic policy in Germany. It may be too late for that this time.

But Covid-19 will not be the last pandemic of the 21st century and pandemic policy is not the only policy area where Western societies should learn from the so-called "late starters".

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