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What does the coronavirus tell us about the West’s image of Asia – and itself?

In a time of pandemic and radical uncertainty, we face tests of individualism, governance, globalised capitalism, and democracy.

Zoénie Deng
1 April 2020, 9.39am
Commercial streets in Wuhan are resuming vitality as the coronavirus epidemic wanes.
Shen Bohan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

In the time of accelerated capitalist globalisation and rising ideology-driven nationalism, the pandemic of Novel Coronavirus that causes lock-downs around the globe also triggers deep-rooted issues to (re)surface, to loom large, like a mirror, or a magnifying glass. For me, as a person from Guangzhou living in the Netherlands, it has been particularly interesting to observe the contradictions the pandemic has thrown up in the West’s image of itself versus Asia.

Before and since COVID-19 spread to Europe and the US, videos and posts about Asian people being verbally or even physically attacked by people on the street or on public transport have gone viral. The toxic narrative of the 'yellow peril' has raised its head again, in a globalisation framework that is rather different from that of 1890s, when this term first emerged. Europe and North America perceived the military and economic development of Japan and China as a threat to the empires of the West, and this sparked fear of the importation of cheap labour from China as the Chinese were stereotyped as “inferior and unhygienic”. In his book Margins and Mainstreams, Gary Okihiro argues: “the fear, whether real or imagined, arose from the fact of the rise of nonwhite peoples and their defiance of white supremacy. And while serving to contain the Other, the idea of the yellow peril also helped to define the white identity, within both a nationalist and an internationalist frame.

Asians might be a 'peril' but they are also constructed as a 'model minority' (even though Asians are not a monolithic group of people), a concept which might help us understand why some of those carrying out attacks on Asians, including those in the videos linked to above, are other people of colour – something that I found puzzling and hurtful at first. Matthew Lee, an Asian American health policy researcher, writes: "the myth of Asian as 'model minority' is rooted in anti-Blackness, and was leveraged by a conservative white majority in the 1960s to oppose the activism of the US civil rights movement". Though the European and US contexts differ, in both cases we can think of pyramid-like socio-economic-political structures in which the white majority are on top, and which defines the White and the Other. The other groups are subject to stereotypes and discriminations, and minorities might to some extent adopt these biases and cast them onto each other, which can be magnified in special times such as now in a pandemic.

This fear of Asian contagion paradoxically sits side by side with the healthy young people who thought that their Asian friends were too panicky as they warned about how contagious this coronavirus is and that we should all take it seriously, or the healthcare system may collapse. There were light-hearted sayings going around until just a few weeks ago: 'it’s no worse than flu', 'the death rate is so low', 'our healthcare system is pretty good and it’s ready for that' 'only people in poor countries would die from it'.

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As the news coming from different parts of the current pandemic epicentre – Europe – shows, healthcare systems were not prepared for this much more contagious cousin of SARS – the hospitals are above their capacities, and medical workers are getting infected because of the lack of protective equipment. I wonder, what was behind this optimistic and confident attitude of people in the West towards this pandemic spreading from the East: was the old dichotomy of the liberal-advanced-rich West and the non-liberal-backward-poor East alive and well? Did this line of thinking also influence western governments in tackling the pandemic?

The WHO has been calling for governments to step up measures and even learn from China. However, the drastic and draconian measures in China, including locking down the whole province of Hubei and major cities and keeping people at home with police and military power, closing universities and schools, monitoring people via surveillance means and big data, building hospitals in a rush, and imposing heavy censorship on different voices on the internet and traditional media, did not sound appealing to Europeans. There were concerns that these measures would threaten values of freedom and democracy and threaten their livelihoods and lifestyles.

But beyond these widely reported authoritarian measures, there were other measures adopted: easily accessible and free coronavirus testing , free treatment since 27th January, and large-scale contact tracing that was developed during SARS. Yet it is true that the Chinese model as a whole is not replicable, since the regime is a centralised authoritarian one, quick mobilisation of medical and financial resources are realised by way of political order, and the country is the world factory and the biggest manufacturer of protective masks.

Other places in Asia have succeeded in containing the disease, and some of the measures can be borrowed: South Korea disinfected public spaces and transport and set up drive-in test centres; Singapore imposed big fines on those who should self-isolate but did not comply, and sent clear messages to the public; Taiwan enacted travel alerts on affected countries at the onset of the outbreak in China, and made information on epidemic control and medical resources transparent and accessible to citizens; Hong Kong gradually closed its border with China to stop importing cases after medical workers went on strike. At the same time, all these governments asked their citizens to take social responsibility to protect their communities by restricting their own mobility and practicing social distancing.

Yet what I have observed in the Netherlands is quite different – when the first case from Northern Italy was confirmed on 27th Feb, his close contacts were not advised to self-quarantine (but just to monitor their temperatures twice a day). Others who came back from coronavirus-hit areas could carry on their daily life as usual as long as they did not show symptoms, despite the possibility of asymptomatic transmission described by some medical research. The exponential growth happened in the following three weeks – still no mass testing, no measures to guarantee the stay-at-home patients do comply, all sort of business were still fully open till 12th March, schools only were closed on the 16th.

On 16th March, following his British counterpart, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte told the people that large amounts of them would be infected and they would wait for medicine and a vaccine while building herd immunity. With a lot of things that we still don’t know about this virus, the possibility of herd immunity is in doubt.

The logic behind these slow and indecisive measures seems clear – the Asian countries had probably overacted and their economies would suffer a lot; instead, “don’t panic/keep calm and carry on”, the economy/capital is important (more important than life perhaps). This also explains why countries like the US and the Netherlands in mid-March wanted to bail out big industries such as aviation, rather than strengthening health care systems and supporting the poor and the precarious. Meanwhile, there are reports of young Europeans and Americans congregating in large groups on beaches and in parks, and hoarding in supermarkets.

In a time of pandemic and radical uncertainty, we face tests of individualism, governance, neoliberalism, globalised capitalism, and democracy.

While the West feared that its democracy might not tolerate ‘Asian-style’ authoritarian crisis-responses, in some ways it’s own responses have been less than democratic. At the start of the outbreak in the Netherlands, I tried to warn the public health authority of the danger of executing such relaxed measures by writing emails to them, but what I got in return was an automated email containing generic information on COVID-19, and one of my emails was even categorised as spam. I started to wonder: how can a common person’s voice get heard by the authorities in a representative democratic system?

In Taiwan, on the other hand, the Digital Minister, Audrey Tang, has brought in a focused conversation method on the web platform pol.is, which is used to crowdsource debates on policy that remain civil and open to each citizen’s opinions and to reach consensus. This is to renew the structure of governance that is saturated by hierarchy and bureaucracy, and dominated by lobbyists, politicians, and capitalists. Citizens can empower themselves and take part in this kind of digital democracy, which is lacking in the system in the Netherlands. I wonder what would have happened if the warnings by people like me – not as medical experts, but as concerned residents/citizens who gave well-researched suggestions, were taken into account in an online public debate with such a method and facilitated by the health authority, rather than being ignored by stressed civil servants who had to reply to a huge amount of emails when the emergency occurred.

Apart from being a mirror and a magnifying glass, this pandemic might also become a game changer. Now a lot people, including economists, philosophers, environmental campaigners, medical workers, epidemiologists, and writers, think that the world after this pandemic is going to be different. But how different will it be? Is the pandemic a game changer that will make people to rethink capitalism, reconfigure relationships with other human and non-human actors, and reshape globalisation and politics? Perhaps we are all in a paradigm shift that has never happened before in human history.

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