Collectivist Asia fares better than individualist West during pandemic

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Masked pedestrians walk past a billboard reminding people on social distancing practices amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Tokyo. One frequently heard explanation for the relative success of East Asia in containing the pandemic is their mask-wearing culture. AFP

A curious pattern emerges when viewing the worldwide number of Covid-19 cases and deaths by country. At the top of the list of most deaths and new cases are various countries around the world with no obvious pattern appearing based on geography.

But scrolling down the list further, with a bit of scrutiny, one clear pattern that turns up is how well certain regions of the world have handled the pandemic, with some countries ranking much further down the list than their large populations would suggest they should. Those countries include China, Japan and South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam.

And although China’s rigorous measures and enforcement to contain the virus may reflect the control their government is able to exercise, the other countries listed here have governments with far less control over
their populations, yet they have performed remarkably well during the pandemic compared to countries like Canada, India, the UK and the US.

One frequently heard explanation for the relative success of East Asia is their mask-wearing culture. In my three decades living in Japan and Hong Kong of China, I became used to seeing people there wearing masks to avoid spreading a perceived cold. Presently, my contacts in both places assure me that it is rare to see someone without a mask on quite unlike my casual observations on mask-wearing behaviour as I write from here in Toronto, Canada.

However, as much as masks are helpful in preventing the spread of viruses, what those masks reflect about those societies’ beliefs and way of behaving may be more significant.

In other words, the wearing of masks symbolises something much deeper.

With this backdrop, just as our third wave reaches its peak in Toronto, it is no surprise that we continue to suffer much more than our East Asian counterparts.

A look at the numbers tells a tale.

Hong Kong, with a population of over seven million crammed into a far smaller living space than the greater Toronto region, is now in its fourth wave. But that wave has a very different nature than our waves.

Currently, Hong Kong’s “wave” is averaging less than a dozen new cases a day, and in total they have had just over 200 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Also in China, Macao and Taiwan have performed even better.

Meanwhile, Toronto, in its third wave is tallying close to a thousand new cases a day and well over 10 times the number of total deaths compared to Hong Kong.

Country comparisons tell a similar story. While Canada’s Covid-19 death toll tops 23,000, Japan, with over three times Canada’s population, has about one-third the number of deaths.

Beyond masks then, why has East Asian society performed so much better during the pandemic? One answer to this question concerns the collective nature of their societies.

Beginning at birth in these societies, children are brought up to obey authority and avoid standing out from the group. A proverb known by all Japanese, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” serves as a
warning to children who display too much individualism, while also indicating the importance of group harmony and cooperation.

In Canada, a common kindergarten activity called “show-and-tell”, where five-year-olds bring a toy from home and explain it to the class, focuses on the individual. Here, children learn from an early age that showing their individualism is good and important.

Voicing one’s own opinion is seen as virtuous.

While these examples may seem simplistic or even stereotypical, they do reflect our later behaviour as adults to some extent.

So, when the Hong Kong government imposed a 14-to 21-day quarantine on incoming visitors close to a year ago, it played a large role in containing the virus from the beginning.

However, the government’s ability to impose such a strict quarantine to some degree reflected their society’s tolerance and expectations.

Compare that to Canada’s feeble three-day quarantine for overseas visitors imposed almost a year later. There is little wonder that we are now dealing with virulent variants that have arrived from the UK, South Africa and Brazil.

In the Canadian government’s defence, its rather timid approach to screening overseas visitors may reflect the wishes of its individual-oriented populous. If it had acted like the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government and imposed such strict conditions earlier, there may have been an anti-government uproar.

In many ways, the focus on individualism that children in the West have been steeped in from childhood has benefited society and is one of our great strengths as creativity flourishes. The trouble is, during a pandemic, individualism is our Achilles heel.

What we need now is group cooperation.

Paul Stapleton has been a professor at various universities in East Asia over past three decades. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK