Coronavirus: Where East and West still do not meet

July 28, 2020 08:13
The United States, a country with less than 5 percent of the world’s population accounts for over a quarter of the world’s infections and 23 percent of its deaths.Photo: Reuters

In this globalized world, one would think that Rudyard Kipling’s evocative line, “Oh East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,” is no longer relevant with the internet providing round-the-clock real-time data to all corners of the world. And yet, these words are as portentous today amid the Covid-19 pandemic as when they were first penned in 1889.

It turns out that the countries of the East – in particular, the chopsticks societies of East Asia – have dramatically lower infection and death rates than those of the West, such as the countries in North America and Europe.

This is not a coincidence.

A few figures illustrate the contrast. As of July 26, China, where the virus first manifested itself, with 1.4 billion people, reported a total of 83,830 cases, with 4,634 deaths, or three deaths per million people.

Of course, China has an autocratic government and its figures have been questioned. But democratic East Asian societies Japan and South Korea also reported extremely low figures, with Japan recording eight deaths per million people and South Korea six deaths per million.

Taiwan, whose people are the same ethnicity as those in mainland China, reported 0.3 deaths per million people, Singapore five per million, Thailand 0.8 per million while Vietnam astonishingly reported no deaths at all. This is an incredible performance on the part of East Asian societies.

Now, compare the figures with those of western countries.

The United States, with 331 million people, has more than 4.3 million infections and 149,400 deaths, with a death rate of 451 per million people. So, a country with less than 5 percent of the world’s population accounts for over a quarter of the world’s infections and 23 percent of its deaths.

Some other western countries didn’t fare too well either. The United Kingdom logged 674 deaths per million people, Spain 608, France 462, Canada 235 and Germany 110.

What accounts for this dramatic difference between East and West where the coronavirus is concerned?

To a large extent, it has to do with societal values. The West generally and the United States in particular focuses on the individual, the rights, freedoms and accomplishments of men and women. In Confucian society, the emphasis is on the community, and an individual is taught to put the group’s interests ahead of his or her interests.

In East Asia, the wearing of face masks is almost universal, and has been the case for a while. There is recognition of its value where public health is concerned. Even where governments don’t mandate its use, people voluntarily do the face covering, considering it a matter of courtesy to others as much as protection for oneself.

Confucian societies emphasize harmony and discipline. Rights are generally coupled with responsibilities.

Both the Chinese and the American constitutions set out protections for rights, though the implementation is quite different in the two countries.

But the Chinese constitution is notable for coupling rights with responsibilities. For example, Article 51 declares: “Citizens of the People's Republic of China, in exercising their freedoms and rights, may not infringe upon the interests of the state, of society or of the collective, or upon the lawful freedoms and rights of other citizens.”

Thus, rights are to be exercised in a responsible manner; an individual’s rights are subordinate to the community’s rights.

In the United States, people who refused to wear a face mask asserted their right to do as they pleased, regardless of consequences to their own health or the well-being of others. And they were defended by no less a personage than Vice President Mike Pence, Chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Pence responded at a briefing to a question about mask-wearing by saying: “Even in a health crisis, the American people don't forfeit our constitutional rights.”

That is, any American has a right to not wear face masks even if this puts at risk the health of other people. Individual rights, it seems, trump collective rights.

Interestingly, the relationship between pathogens and individualistic or collectivistic societies has been studied scientifically, with the findings published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences in 2008.

The study’s conclusion, reached by Corey L. Fincher and his colleagues, was that “prevalence of pathogens has a strong positive correlation with cultural indicators of collectivism and a strong negative correlation with individualism.” In layman’s language, it suggests that societies became collectivist to protect themselves after having been exposed to epidemics, an interesting example of evolution at work.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.