Full Professor, Political Studies
Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ottawa
East Asia presents a remarkable picture in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Taken as a whole, this region is the least affected in the world in terms of mortality rates attributed to the infection. One could add to China, Japan, the two Koreas, Vietnam, and Taiwan, the cases in Australia and New Zealand, as well as countries that have been spared so far on other continents. It is important to draw attention to the East Asian countries, with their varying economic conditions, to see what lessons can be learned. Countries in the region, from post-industrialized Japan to very poor North Korea, cover a wide range in terms of their level of economic development. The political regimes are also very diverse, with the three democracies of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, on the one hand, and the authoritarian regimes of China, Vietnam, and North Korea, on the other.
China is a special case: the ravages of the epidemic affected this country first, and for the time being the country seems to have contained the danger. It has paid a high price to achieve this: the heavy-handed approach used by the authorities included measures of mass confinement on a scale barely tolerable in liberal societies. The results are remarkable, but the regime has avoided claiming victory too early, with a resurgence of cases observed at the end of July.
The case of Vietnam is certainly extraordinary, as the numbers from the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University show. More populated than Germany, the country counts a fraction of the number of people affected: only 621 Vietnamese compared to more than 211,000 Germans. For 99 days, Vietnam experienced no loss of life from the disease, with only three deaths as of August 2. The rapid closure of borders with China gave the Vietnamese the time and the means to isolate and avoid the worst.
In the case of North Korea, very few give credence to its figures, which state that the country is free of infection. It is plausible that the country was spared because of its international isolation. However, the constraints caused by the international sanctions make the country particularly vulnerable should an infection break out. This situation should be observed very closely as the country admitted to its first cases on 25 July in the town of Kaesong, a city bordering its southern neighbour.
Among democratic nations in East Asia, Taiwan stands out: only 450 cases for a population of 24 million, an economy that functions normally, where classes have not stopped, and without widespread containment measures. This is the ideal scenario to which Canada and so many other countries aspire. The reasons behind its success are many but can be summarized as follows: an action plan developed over many years, quarantine for infected people, tracking of infected people and their contacts, and the availability of masks.
Case numbers in South Korea, although less impressive than Taiwan and Vietnam, are nevertheless respectable when compared to those of Western European countries. The country's performance would have been even better had it not been for the Shincheonji church, a Protestant sect deemed responsible for more than a third of the cases. Authorities arrested its spiritual leader on August 1st, and some are advocating that he be charged with criminal negligence.
The case of Japan serves as a cautionary tale. It has been recognized as a model country because of the relatively low number of infections and deaths: declaring a state of emergency to contain the contagion did not confine people to their homes and did not force businesses to close. Targeted screening measures and long-standing practices, such as wearing masks to avoid infecting others, helped achieve these results. However, the relaxation of sanitary measures may have been premature, as the contagion rate has rebounded in recent days.
By the time it comes time to take stock of the pandemic, the world will have changed dramatically: hopefully, we will collectively learn from those countries that have been able to contain the scourge before others while minimizing harm to their economies. The high surveillance apparatus of the three authoritarian regimes in East Asia no doubt appeal to undemocratic countries in other parts of the world. That is a problem in open societies, but also, more profoundly, for opponents of these regimes. In this context it is crucial to stress that the authoritarian approach is not the only one that works. The democratic societies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have all, despite some differences, demonstrated their ability to cope with this scourge without sacrificing democratic freedoms.