One alluring answer would be that the more authoritarian a nation is, the more effective pandemic response has been
The "East-West" cluster of nations – Europe and North America on one hand, and Sinic East Asia on the other – represents the globe's three key zones of economic activity. But interestingly, though the epidemic centre of coronavirus was in one of the countries of East Asia, very clearly, East Asia or Sinic-influenced nations of China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, have done better than the West in virus management.
Unlike most infectious diseases which register their highest mortalities in the developing world, Covid-19 has wreaked its greatest havoc on the world's richest nations.
According to Johns Hopkins University data, the top 10 affected nations are mostly from the West. The US holds the top position, with the UK at number 3, Spain at 4, Italy at 5, France at 7 and Germany at 8. Even China, the originating place of the virus and the world's most populous nation, is in 11th place.
Even the difference in mortality is higher in Western nations.
According to Asia Times, the US (population: 328 million) has lost 84,118 lives. The UK (population: 66 million) has lost 33,264. Italy (population 60 million) has lost 31,106. Spain (population 47 million) has lost 27,104. France (population 67 million) has lost 27, 077 and Germany (population 83 million) has lost 7,861. Whereas, China (population: 1.3 billion) has suffered 4,637 deaths. Japan (population: 126 million) has lost 678. South Korea (population 51 million) has lost 260. Taiwan (population: 23.7 million) has lost only seven. Vietnam (population: 95.5 million) has registered zero death.
The Western nations we mentioned above are fully developed nations – as are Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – but China and Vietnam are still lagging on a GDP per capita basis.
So what has the East done right and the West wrong?
Culture and communalism
The two main vectors of transmission for Covid-19 are airborne droplets and contact. In countering these vectors, East Asia's social habits have played a major role over the West.
Due to East Asia's air pollution and harsh influenzas, mask- wearing – a simple but critical step in halting respiratory disease transmission by containing infected persons' droplets within masks – is a common habit across the region. Likewise, masks are more widely available to buy.
Additionally, the greeting manner is also different in the Eastern region. The East Asians generally greet people with the traditional bowing culture, meaning there is less physical contact. But the greeting culture in the West includes cheek-kissing, hugging and hand-shaking.
Another aspect of culture is the diet, which impacts a key Covid- 19 risk factor. East Asians as a whole suffer lower rates of obesity than Westerners.
Attitudes toward authority
Unlike the West, East Asian countries tend to follow rules and orders of the authority. And this might have given the countries advantages for reasons that combine politics and culture.
While the West believes in a pure democracy, in communist-led China and Vietnam, the hand of government is heavy, a factor that militates against civil disobedience.
Even democratic Japan, South Korea and Taiwan experienced dictatorial or militaristic governance within living memory but one can hardly remember if the US has ever seen any dictator since its birth.
The Westerners are more "individualistic" than the East Asians.
Even the South Koreans, who are well-known for their protest culture, observed civic order during 2016's "million-man" anti- government protests.
"In Chinese, the character for state includes 'family'," said Dr Jerome Kim, director-general of the International Vaccine Institute, to Asia Times. "When something comes from dad, the rest of the family follows along."
And observers note that in South Korea, where no lockdown occurred, and Japan, where a "lockdown lite" has been instituted, dictates on avoiding large gatherings, on mask-wearing and hand sanitisation, are widely followed.
Rights to privacy
Relatedly, the prioritisation of society over the individual has come into focus over rights to privacy, for a key pandemic countermeasure is contact tracing of the infected.
This process has been eased by East Asia's high adoption rates of digital devices and its top-tier ICT backbone. In China, tracing is further empowered by a pervasive state surveillance network.
But even in democratic Asia, where credit card and cell phone data have been used in tracing, there has been minimal pushback on the issue. Looking West, there are high cultural barriers towards the use of personal data by governments, most notably in the US.
There are lining memories of war in every East Asian country. In World War II, Japan was massively bombed which includes the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
China and Korea experienced a post-war Civil War in the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1960s-70s. Today, China and Taiwan, and the two Koreas remain trapped in military face-offs.
Western nations, however, have not suffered war on their land since 1945. Yet even in Europe, certain countries which suffered badly in World War II such as Germany and Poland have weathered the Covid-19 storm better than those which did not, such as the UK and the US.
There have been policy shifts, clashes with experts and inconsistent messaging by Western leaders such as the UK's Boris Johnson and America's Donald Trump.
Conversely, East Asian leaders have set examples. Chinese President Xi Jinping is frequently filmed wearing a mask and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even wears his in the Diet. Korean officials, including President Moon Jae-in, are frequently filmed wearing yellow disaster-management jackets.
At the macro level, the key anti-virus strategy for centuries has been quarantine of the sick. The novel coronavirus pandemic has seen quarantine implemented on an unprecedented scale, with both the sick and the healthy "locked down" in entire cities and provinces for weeks or months.
That policy was pioneered by China, where authoritarian governance has likely enabled more effective lockdown than is seen in many Western countries. Even so, several Western nations have extended the Chinese model beyond cities and provinces to cover entire countries.
At the micro level, the benchmarks for the key tactics undertaken by countries worldwide — the "3Ts" ("testing, tracing, treatment") — are represented by the democratic East Asian nations.
The world till now has not found any magical medicine to counter Covid-19. While the world awaits a dedicated Covid-19 vaccine, BCG, a 100-year-old tuberculosis vaccination that appears to train or stimulate the overall immune system, may provide a very important shield.
Most of Eastern Europe and Asia, which have weathered the crisis more effectively, maintain ongoing national BCG vaccination programmes. While in Italy and the United States, BCG was only recommended for select groups.
Movement and integration
The EU and the US are internally borderless, permitting free and easy movement of people, goods — and, in the early stages before
barriers rose, viruses.
In East Asia, there exists neither a free trade area nor a federation of states that permit borderless movement. Moreover, Taiwan and Japan are island nations, as is — de facto — South Korea, which is separated from continental Asia by North Korea.
East Asia's manufacturing muscle, combined with prior experiences with pandemics and its social habits of mask- wearing, has allowed regional economies to churn out massive quantities of masks, personal protective equipment (PPE) and test kits.
Western economies which have shifted heavily toward services have suffered shortages of test kits, of PPE for medical workers and even the most basic, low-tech anti-virus supplies for their populaces.
Weather and climate
Climate, perhaps in combination with Asian cultural and/or genetic characteristics, could potentially also help explain the low death tolls in Southeast Asia, which have warmer climates but are less prosperous than the West.
What is the answer to end this pandemic?
The crisis is not over yet, and there is a concern that a "second wave" might hit as lockdowns worldwide are eased. Even so, East Asia has clearly outdone the West in the first wave in terms of affected people and casualties. But how did they do it? One alluring answer would be that the more authoritarian a nation is, the more effective pandemic response has been. This
would explain Vietnam and China's low per million death rates, though questions linger about the accuracy of both nations' data. Democratic Japan, South Korea and Taiwan only partly contradict the authoritarian argument, but in their case, it might be because their populations may be more culturally conditioned than Western nationals to follow rules from above and to prioritise society before an individual.