The biggest problems we face in the modern world, including the biggest one of all, global warming, are human problems, i.e. problems we must face as a species rather than in our usual fashion as tribes.

In the case of the coronavirus, we in the West are having some difficulty dealing with the threat as communities never mind as a species. 

Such is not the case in the East. East Asian countries—China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam—despite having different political  systems, have been much more successful. The death rates per million people of the countries named average about five. The death rates of the major Western countries—Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Great Britain and the U.S.—average 626, a vastly different order of magnitude.

The eastern nations have had some advantages. China and Vietnam, for example, can use coercion to enforce regulations that would be unacceptable in the West. And in China, tracing is empowered by pervasive state surveillance. Across East Asia, mask wearing is routine during flu season, and East  Asians suffer much lower rates of obesity, a precondition for COVID.

But the East has disadvantages, too. They have bigger cities and higher population densities, and they had to deal with the virus with less warning.

In East Asia, governments intervened early, devised comprehensive rules and provided the resources to apply them. 

Nonetheless, given the vast difference in death rates, one suspects something else is going on here. East Asian nations share Chinese-influenced, Confucian cultures. They are more collective with stronger group identities compared to the more individualistic cultures of the West. As a result, East Asians are more responsive to rules, more willing to set their individual freedom aside for the common good. We heard of no mobs of individualists confronting authorities, defying masks and social distancing.

Those Western countries with more collective cultures such as the Scandinavians also had much lower death rates (excepting Sweden) than the major Western countries although not nearly as low as East Asia.

Individualism is a great thing, but there are times when even it must submit to common sense and the common good. It seems that East Asia has done a much better job at recognizing this, at least pandemically, than the West. This wouldn’t indicate that civilization is tipping east would it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *