The Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General, William Morris, shares some reflections this Christmas in the midst of the Covid pandemic;
To hear the this Christmas message please click this link:
The Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General, William Morris, shares some reflections this Christmas in the midst of the Covid pandemic;
To hear the this Christmas message please click this link:
The following has been prepared by Next Century Foundation Research Officer Alexander Shah for submission by the Next Century Foundation as a statement to the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council:
The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has suffered over the past decade. Poverty rates have skyrocketed, basic goods have become scarce, and millions have fled the country. Covid-19 presents a dangerous new challenge to the country. The Venezuelan healthcare system is under tremendous pressure, having to deal with hospital overcrowding, insufficient equipment, and a limited ability to conduct testing. Only a quarter of doctors in the country have access to a reliable supply of clean water and two-thirds lack soap, gloves or masks. A new surge in Covid-19 cases could prove disastrous for the already collapsing healthcare system.
Venezuela is hindered from delivering a rapid and efficient response to the Covid-19 crisis because of crippling sanctions imposed by the United States of America. The U.S. has continually ignored appeals by the Venezuelan government to ease sanctions, despite their clearly deleterious effect on the state’s citizens.
Prior to any easing of sanctions, the United States has demanded that Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, accused of authoritarian abuses of power, step down in order to hold new elections. The U.S. has charged President Maduro with the crime of “narco-terrorism” in an attempt to further this process. This move has further embittered President Maduro and narrowed the potential for discussion.
The Next Century Foundation calls on the United States of America to end its debilitating sanctions on Venezuela in order to enable the country to adequately deal with the Covid-19 crisis. Likewise, we call on President Maduro to engage in discussions with Mr. Juan Guaidó, leader of the opposition, over how to effectively tackle the pandemic, and to potentially come to some sort of democratic power-sharing agreement as a precursor to free and fair elections.
We all have something to answer for – from God in his Heaven to you as you sit there in lockdown. What do you care when it comes down to it? To listen to William’s podcast click here.
HOWEVER MORE IMPORTANTLY: Everyone seems to be busy campaigning to tear down statues and blue plaques – alienating some in the process as well as obliterating part of our history. Instead why don’t they campaign to celebrate the greatest British warriors to end slavery?
William Wilberforce for instance. Where is his statue? Well there is one in his home city of Hull and there is a smaller one tucked away in Westminster Abbey. But there should be a proper one out of doors in Central London don’t you think?
You could argue that John Newton, the ex-slaver that became an abolitionist (and incidentally wrote the hymn Amazing Grace after he shifted over to the side of the great and the good) deserves a statue. After all he was the one that mentored William Wilberforce. But all he has is a large bronze bust somewhere in Ireland.
However this Cornish warrior against slavery nobody celebrates. Stick him on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square I reckon. He at least deserves a statue somewhere. Barrington Reynolds, the Cornishman who helped put an end to international slavery. Now there’s an unsung hero. Looks a little strange but – What a guy. In fact forget the statue, they should make a movie about him:
Covid 19 is the nowadays issue, and family meetings and conversations among friends aren’t free of it. You cannot fail to think about the extent of its impact on everything that surrounds us, our social life, our mental health, and certainly, economic conditions.
For some people it’s a subject for contemplation. Who among us hasn’t given a thought to how this tiny thing, that one cannot see with the naked eye, could make the world stand on one finger, make the world stand still. A “sick leave for the environment”, an environment which has been functioning day and night for thousands of years, so that we may live the life we aspire to. I don’t deny the negative aspects, but it’s also important that we do not exclude the bright side of the existence of this pandemic.
Admittedly, one of the things that I’m always thinking about – particularly after we saw the response of the developed countries to this disease, which did not satisfy many of their citizens, especially with the large number of deaths and infected people that increases daily in high proportions – is how the developing countries, especially those facing internal conflict, will deal with this pandemic?
We will shed little light on Libya, which, after having a revolution against an authoritarian and dictatorial government, that was part of a series of so-called “Arab Spring revolutions” that started in the sister country of Libya, Tunisia in 2011. “Arab Spring” is a meaningless name, as after these revolutions, these countries are now living an autumn that hasn’t come to an end. The fall of its fallen leaves is represented in many human lives lost. Libya is passing through civil war that targeted all Libyan cities and towns, until fighting eventually moved to its capital, Tripoli.
Tripoli has been facing conflicts that lasted for more than a year now, which led to a population over stacking at its center; as many citizens living in its suburbs were forced to leave their homes in the search for security in the city center, in addition to a previous presence of many other displaced people from other cities that had also come in search of security in the capital.
On March 14, 2020, Mr. Fayez Al-Sarraj, the head of the Presidential Council of Libya, announced “the state of emergency” after the outbreak of the disease in the world, especially in neighboring countries, and took many measures, including closing borders and airports, suspending studying in schools and universities, closing all restaurants and shops, and imposing some regulation in grocery stores and bakeries to limit the spread of the disease. A lot of people have made the attempt to adhere to the new regulations and commitment to social distancing, which included not gathering in mosques and holding prayers at home. However, there were no sufficient medical preparations (in terms of medical staff, emergency teams, sterilization teams, and availability of PPE) to receive cases. Consequently, on March 24, 2020, when the first case was recorded in Tripoli, there was an obvious confusion among the medical staff, after the symptoms and travel history of that patient were confirmed with the diagnosis of Corona virus infection. This confusion continued, and was made worse by the security situation and the state of war the city is passing through and that included targeting the Khadra Public Hospital, where a health isolation center was supposed to be established.
Nearly two weeks after registering the first case, a medical committee and a sterilization team were formed and transformed one of the health centers into a center to detect suspicious cases, and set up a health isolation center to receive critical cases in a hospital in Tripoli, and provided medical personnel and care staff to deal with moderate and non-critical cases at their homes, and of course, supplied the hospitals with the personal protective equipment needed. In addition awareness programs have been established targeting all media and social media, and training courses for medical staff and volunteers, and all of that under the supervision of the CDC in Tripoli.
Also, Libyan embassies in most countries took care of the Libyan community abroad, and one of the procedures they use is to test people wishing to return home, and in cases where the sample was positive, they would be isolated in hotels paid by the Libyan authority, and if it was negative, they’d be allowed to return home on condition that they isolate themselves in their homes and refrain from mixing with their families and friends for two weeks.
All of these procedures maintained a low rate of infections and also very low mortality rate. The total registered case was 70 infections and 3 deaths in two months, and the cause of death of these three people was the presence of underlying health problems in addition to infection with coronavirus, and the percentage of cases that were cured was very high. According to reports from Tripoli CDC, it’s likely that the reason behind the low infection rate is probably the genetic factor of the patients and the strain that infected this region is different from the strains that infected Asia, Europe and America.
From my point of view, what was the main reason behind these numbers were the measures that the state launched and the people’s commitment to it. Whereas, as soon as there is a little easing off from from both the state and the citizens, especially since the return of the Libyans from abroad, and the entry of travelers in legal and illegal ways, and their lack of commitment to the self-isolation imposed on them, the number of infections have reached 90 cases in the last week of May alone. The question now is: Is this because of the state’s negligence and corruption or misbehavior and irresponsibility of the people? I want to place the blame on the citizens, but is it possible to put the blame on them in this very bad security situation in which homes are not completely safe, where the death rate of people as a result of shells falling over their homes is much higher than the death rate as a result of corona virus?
The UK now has a worse death rate than any other comparable nation, bar Spain, according to the World’s Press. A Financial Times report released last week gives Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent assertion – that the upcoming track-and-trace system is ‘world beating’ – something of a grim irony. Such technology has proved effective in other countries, most notably South Korea, who contrarily have one of the lowest Covid-19 mortality rates in the world.
For South Korea, aside from being quick off the draw with regards to testing (by mid-March they had tested more than 270,000 people), they had realised the benefits of prudent use of mobile technology early. People who had tested positive were asked to input data with regard to their movements, aided by GPS and credit-card transaction tracing.
Such an approach has caused a collective skin crawl in the West, who’s leaders and populations alike lazily ascribe notions of totalitarian surveillance to the Asian continent as a whole. It is worth noting that such technology has struggled to get off the ground not only in the U.K, but in the U.S too. The latter nation has seen many citizens insisting that lockdown impinged upon their freedom. There have been demonstrations in as many as 18 U.S. states, while the number of Covid-19 cases sky-rocketed, giving the U.S. the largest case count globally.
It is not just the U.S. who are guilty of patriotic exceptionalism, however. A number of critics have painted Mr. Johnson and his government as having a lackadaisical approach to the virus from the off. Back in February, a leaked government report suggested that coronavirus could claim as many as 500,000 British lives in a worst case scenario. The next week, after chairing his first COBRA emergency meeting, Mr. Johnson assured the public that while the spread of the virus was likely, the British people should ‘go about business as usual’.
Later, the Sunday Times would report that Mr. Johnson had in fact missed five previous COBRA emergency meetings regarding the status of the pandemic, and thus suggested a marked failure on part of the Prime Minister to take the virus seriously. On March 3rd, one day after the his first chaired COBRA meeting, Mr. Johnson said, ‘I was at a hospital the other night where I think a few there were actually coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody. I continue to shake hands.’ The Prime Minister’s previously unshakeable confidence has since been rattled by his contracting the virus himself.
Two days later, on the 5th March, the Prime Minister appears on ITV’s This Morning where he introduced the public to the idea of herd immunity. He said, ‘One theory is that you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go, and allow the disease, as it were to move through the population.’ But in reality the NHS simply didn’t and arguably still doesn’t hold the required capacity. To be fair to Johnson, it was his chief aide Dominic Cummings who was largely reported as the original proprietor of the herd immunity strategy – a man who later embroiled himself in scandal after breaking the ‘Stay At Home’ rules he helped to create.
Granted, after heeding warnings from scientists, Cummings distanced himself from the herd immunity approach, in favour of a policy of strict social distancing. However, this does not contradict the thesis of the Sunday Times piece, which suggested five weeks of battle-planning were lost due to government floundering.
It is true that while the government were juggling with herd immunity, another approach was considered: that of developing test-and-trace technology. This strategy, however, was abandoned in mid-March. One senior Tory was quoted in the Financial Times as saying, ‘There is a belief here that the things being done in Korea were too intrusive and wouldn’t be acceptable.’ He continues, ‘No one believed you could be totalitarian about this.’ Thus it seems we have more in common with the U.S. than we would care to admit.
Later, critics accused the government of missing an opportunity to deploy 5,000 contact tracing experts who were sitting pretty at local councils across the country. In fact, the Guardian reported in early April that such people were expecting to be called to action: ‘We are pretty good at infection control and contact tracing, it’s part of the job. We thought we’d be asked and we were shelving other work’ said one environmental health worker at a council in the north west.
This brings us to the first week of June, with Mr. Johnson’s ‘world beating’ contact tracing technology being resuscitated and made available to the public, two and a half months after it was initially buried. The only evidence available as to why it was buried in the first place, points to government paranoia and a need to maintain favourable polling amongst the public. Indeed this shows a willingness to place party priorities over public health.
Perhaps this too is the reason why the government is itching to unravel lockdown procedures when as many as 324 people died just last Friday. As of Monday the 1st June, Brits are able to mingle with up to five other people, and elite sport is to return behind closed doors. This is despite warnings from scientific advisers that it is too soon to lift lockdown.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and formerly of the World Health Organisation, has said this of lockdown easing: ‘Test, trace and isolate has to be in place, fully working, capable of dealing with any surge immediately, locally responsive, rapid results, and infection rates have to be lower.’ Whether the track-and-trace technology will be effective is yet to be seen, but the UK’s infection rate remains high.
The UK government would do well to consider that both Germany and South Korea have seen an upsurge in cases since public life has resumed. Spain, the only nation with a higher death-rate than the UK, extended their state of emergency after a rise in the death toll was caused by easing lockdown measures. Britain, like the U.S., has so far acted with a crisis strategy largely informed by isolationism and exception. Critics will therefore continue to be suspicious of the UK’s ability to follow the example of other nations.
The consistent evocation of war-time rhetoric and Churchill-like stoicism by the UK government has done little to quell something as faceless and apolitical as an airborne virus. This is mirrored in the U.S, with the virus being personified as an affront to individual freedom – an idea further perpetuated by the twitter ramblings of President Trump. With the U.S and the U.K topping the Covid-19 death-charts, and both proving to have ineffective crisis strategies, it is worth asking, what makes us so special?
The 73rd World Health Assembly began on May 18th – and it soon became yet another battleground between the US and China. Back in March, the Trump administration started repeatedly addressing the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus”, causing huge offence in Beijing. Since then, the two countries have been engaging in a mediatic war over who is responsible for the pandemic. The underlying assumption of this blame-shifting is that the virus has been bioengineered to serve as a weapon.
This conversation has proved dangerous on both sides: it not only provoked several attacks in regard to China and Chinese communities abroad, but it also injected a renewed sense of nationalistic pride in the Chinese and eventually reinforced an “East versus West” paradigm and the idea of an inevitable conflict between the two.
Narratives of this kind are as ominous as they are misleading. In the US, it is mainly conservative politicians who speculate that China created their virus out of their biosafety level-four laboratory located in Wuhan, where they suggest the outbreak originated. The first raising questions as to the possibility of a manufactured Covid-19 was American social scientist Steve Mosher, who published an opinion piece on February 22 entitled ‘Don’t buy China’s story: The coronavirus may have leaked from a lab’. Mosher, the president of the Population Research Institute, has also written a book entitled Bully of Asia: Why China’s ‘Dream’ Is the New Threat to World Order, which sheds a bit of light on his stance on the country.
Chinese criticism has been equally sharp but quite different in nature: allegations of a US-manufactured virus were framed more as a (not very) diplomatic response than as an actual inquiry into the American medical research. Xinhua, China State News Agency, has instead released a video advertisement that mocks the U.S. government and blames it for having underestimated the virus and having poorly handled the crisis causing many people to die. A type of criticism that may somehow be more constructive than blaming a government to have deliberately released a new-type disease as a weapon.
What is more important, however, is that none of this is backed by science. Experts worldwide have been debunking theories that Covid-19 originated in a lab. According to a study recently published on the biomedical journal Nature Medicine the molecular features of SARS-CoV-2 that are essential to initiate infection are so perfect that they can only be the result of natural selection and not the product of a genetic engineering process, even if performed by very clever scientists.
In interviews published on Business Insider and Scientific American, Jonna Mazet, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis, who has worked with and trained Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers in the past and Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli warn that there are at least four reasons why a leak would be unlikely. Besides the rigorous safety protocols implemented by the lab, it appears that the lab’s samples simply don’t match the new-type corona-virus.
The most likely explanation for the appearance of Sars-Cov-2 may be instead that it was transmitted to humans after a process of natural selection in an animal host – probably bats – that were sold in Wuhan wet-market. This theory has been leading many to mistrust or mock the Chinese for their backwardness and unusual alimentary habits. While part of this criticism is justified – as China grows it should start taking responsibility both over its society and its engagement with the world – it is not reasonable for other countries to assume that China should just abandon its culinary traditions however strange they might sound. At the origin of the pandemic is the problem of unregulated animal markets anyway, not the ingredients of a Chinese soup.
One last consideration: it may be worthwhile to engage in a mental exercise for a second and imagine what would have happened if the virus originated, let’s say, in Italy. Would have the conversation been any different? It suddenly becomes harder to picture anybody accusing the Italian government of having evil plans to conquer the world. A sign that most of the current discourse on Covid-19 might have more to do with politics than with health.
If Otto von Bismarck was right when he said, “politics is not a science, but an art,” then Vladimir Putin is a virtuoso whose great works deserve to hang in the halls of the Hermitage.
Since acceding to the presidency in 1999, initially as a temporary replacement for a declining Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin has spent the opening 20 years of the 21st century at the head of the Russian Federation, a considerable, if crumbling global power.
Over the years, the President, then Prime Minister, then President (again and again), has remained at the top. He defeated the Communist Party in a 2000 election, won essentially uncontested in 2004, then — due to a clause in the Russian Constitution not allowing Presidents more than two consecutive terms — spent four years as Prime Minister, theoretically subordinate to Dmitry Medvedev. Never losing his influence or sway over his country’s politics however, Putin completed his ‘castling’ move with Medvedev and again became President in 2012, this time for six years as his predecessor had helpfully extended the office’s term limits during the period of Putin’s interregnum. And so, the game continued, with Putin at the helm until March 2018, at which point another illiberal election renewed his lease on the Kremlin until 2024.
2020 began with what was perceived at the time to be either an overture to the finale, or merely a prelude to an era of renewed Putinism. In January, the State Duma and Federation Council (the Russian houses of parliament) passed bills that strengthened the legislature and prime minister at the presidency’s expense, while imbuing a previously inconsequential body called the State Council with new powers. The shakeup, so the theories went, would allow Putin in 2024 to either become Prime Minister again, this time with expanded influence, or discreetly exercise control through the new levers available to him as chairman of the State Council.
In March, however, amidst the background of COVID-19’s beginnings in Russia, Putin changed track. On March 11th, he pushed more amendments through the Duma and Federation Council that would reset his number of presidential limits to zero, thereby allowing him to run for the presidency anew in 2024, as well as ostensibly in 2030, should the then-septuagenarian wish to do so. But before these changes could be finalized as the law of the land, they had to be given popular assent via a national referendum, the date of which Putin set for April 22nd.
Even without factoring in the effects of COVID-19, Putin’s planned political arithmetic was this time not going to be simply executed. The social contract in place, one requiring sufficient enough economic prosperity to make up for an absence of political rights, was already increasingly tenuous. Putin’s approval took a hit in 2019 after he raised the retirement age, and tough Western sanctions imposed after the seizure of Crimea in 2014 have helped keep Russian disposable incomes below their 2013 levels.
With the advent of the coronavirus, though, Putin’s position has become more fragile than ever. The first cases arrived on January 31st, when two Chinese tourists were diagnosed with the virus, but initially, it seemed that Russia may have been able to escape the worst. According to government figures, no Russian nationals were infected until February 17th and throughout March, Putin’s air was collected and confident. At the beginning of the month, on the 1st, he declared the situation “entirely under control” and towards the end, on the 25th, he still maintained that Russia had the ability “to restrain both the wide and rapid spread of the disease.” He closed national borders to protect his citizens and their “sovereignty”— one of Putin’s common rallying cries— and declared on March 27th a week-long nationwide ‘holiday’, accompanied by tax deferments for medium and small-sized businesses.
If at the beginning of April, the worse had yet to come, over the course of the month the situation in Russia rapidly deteriorated. Cases skyrocketed, and even government officials, including the Prime Minister, were diagnosed with COVID-19. At the same time, Putin’s two-pronged political strategy — that of distancing and deception — became apparent. He began avoiding publicly commenting on the virus and declared that regional governors would have to make difficult decisions themselves.
This allowed Putin to criticize local leaders from afar for ‘sloppiness’ when the coronavirus became particularly problematic in a certain region, as happened in Komi, Central Russia. Additionally, as legal activist Ernest Mezak pointed out, the fact that local officials lie, because “this is what they have always have done… as a habit” in order to please Putin, helped keep the number of confirmed cases and COVID-19 fatalities at a minimum.
Still, however, Putin’s efforts to avoid being blamed have not been successful. His public approval was recently measured at 59% by Levada, a pollster thought to be independent of the state. Even putting to one side the well-documented fact that citizens of an authoritarian, or at least highly illiberal, government like that in Russia are likely to overstate their support so as to project loyalty, the May rating was the lowest recorded since Putin took office in 1999.
Because of the virus and / or his unpopularity, Putin’s all-important national referendum on the constitutional amendments has been delayed. While on March 11th, 64% of voters were recorded to support the changes, by April 17th only 50% of Russians said they would vote their approval. With real incomes expected to fall by at least 5% according to Alfa bank (one of the largest private banks in Russia), and with unemployment forecast to skyrocket, it would seem support for the amendments will likely fall further.
In a democracy as opaque as Russia, an absence of popular support may not seem overly consequential for Vladimir Putin. But for all his maneuvering, he has largely been popularly supported throughout his 21st-century reign. Still, if the situation in Russia remains dire with oil prices low, regular employment absent, and government aid paltry, then Mr. Putin may face his greatest challenge yet: a truly democratic one.
This comes in from the Syrian poet and broadcaster, Malak Mustafa. She liked it and we like it. It comes from Barcelona, one of the places worst affected by this plague:
After Europe’s longest lockdown, Italy has entered its much-anticipated phase two on May 4th but it seems only few will have reason to celebrate.
All non-essential activities were banned and severe restrictions on people’s movement were imposed in Italy as early as March 10th, to contain the virus and avoid the risk of overwhelming the National Health System. On April 26th, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, in a video message to the nation, outlined his plan to slowly ease quarantine causing millions to express their anger and disappointment at what became labelled a “false reopening”.
Phase two has been presented as ‘coexistence with the virus’, meaning that people will be able to move within their region of residence to visit family or go to work, and many activities allowed to restart. Conte’s plan was predictable: the lifting of the lockdown, however gradual, must simultaneously involve the areas of production and of social life. After all, market rules teach us there is no significant movement of goods without the movement of people.
What Italians contested was the set of criteria used by the government to formulate cans and can’ts in the new phase. Only export-oriented manufacturing and public sector construction activities reopened on 4th May, leaving many small and medium-sized private sector businesses still at high risk of shutdown. Freedom of movement is still limited to essential activities, such as shopping for groceries or medical supplies, with the sole addition of visiting family members within the same region.
The decision to limit individual contacts to blood relatives alone has been sharply criticised by the public. Many emphasized how the choice of the state to prioritize blood ties is the expression of a backward and familial conception of social life, typical of Italian institutions. As a result of this criticism, the government decided to extend visit permission to all people that constitute “stable relationships”. A vague concept that makes law enforcement much harder. The Prime Minister has explicitly said that “the success of the second phase rests upon Italians’ common sense”.
Other changes involve the reopening of public parks – daily exercise is now allowed, provided that it is done alone and in full respect of social distancing – and the food sector, within bars and restaurants set to reopen to serve takeaway and delivery food.
Thus, Italy’s second phase is intended to look like the UK’s current ‘first’ phase of containment. The country is still far from the ‘phase two’ model set by China, where schools and most work activities have been reopened for weeks, although with strict rules of hygiene and social distancing. And this is what ultimately annoyed Italians, worn out by eight weeks of seclusion.
Other measures, however, are certainly understandable. For instance, the price of face masks has been capped at 50 cents, to make it easier for companies and shops to ensure respect for the rules that will grant their reopening.
Overall, the Italian government has been willing to negotiate. Regardless of its success, Italy’s second phase will set the precedent on the basis of which other countries could – and should – start to outline their strategies.
Some of you may remember Joelle Manih and Ethan Jahan as the Producer and Director respectively of The English Hour broadcasts formerly hosted by NCF Secretary General, William Morris. They are both in lockdown as are most of us these days. This is an interesting short film, made by Ethan and starring Joelle, as their response to Covid-19.
This comes in from Rev Larry Wright, a Board Member of the Next Century Foundation:
What language do we use when speaking about the Covid-19 pandemic? Do we see it as a ‘battle’ to be fought, a ‘monster’ to be slain, an ‘invisible enemy’ to be defeated? Such terms may be helpful for evoking a sense of unity among those who are most at risk but it also perpetuates the questionable idea that human beings and nature are in a perpetual struggle for survival. Covid-19 is a viral mutation whose origins are obscure, but its effects are the same as any other viral mutation, it moves from host to host (human to human) to live and multiple. The fact that it multiples most effectively in human beings is tragic for us but it could have been a mutation which infected other species; remember the swine flu and foot and mouth epidemics? Mutations in nature are a natural phenomenon and will keep occuring as part of creation’s diversity. We as the human species are in a unique position to resist and overcome threats to our survival but it will always be at a cost to us in illness and lives lost. It may feel like an ‘enemy’ among us but it is nature being nature and we will adapt and overcome, until the next time . . .
Keep well, Keep safe, Keep praying
Revd Larry Wright
Kings Norton Team Ministry
Are there lessons still to be learnt about the way the East has handled coronavirus? As Europe and the US adopt increasingly draconian measures to stop the spreading of the virus, Asia is slowly recovering. Within a similar period of time, the virus has made a greater number of victims in Europe and the US than in Asia. This imbalance is not only a matter of governance or national health systems – a lot of it is cultural.
The People’s Republic of China, a country of 1.4 billion people, managed to contain the virus in about ten weeks reporting the first day without deaths on April 7th. Vietnam, one of the PRC’s neighbours and home to the first registered case outside of China back in January, has only a few hundred infections within its territory and, seemingly, no deaths. The government in Hanoi was even praised by the World Health Organisation for its performance. South Korea, one of the virus epicentres back in February, managed to slow down the spread and now has about 10,000 cases (one seventh of those registered in the UK) and only 222 deaths.
What made Asian countries’ response to the virus effective? Many have found an answer in the ability of governments to strictly control their citizens. This capacity is seen as the direct result of the presence of authoritarian governments – China, Vietnam – or authoritarian traits within formally established democracies – South Korea – and has been dismissed in the West as something neither possible nor desirable. But this view might be simplistic. As much as a country’s policy-making reflects the nature of its political systems, political arrangements result from the mindset, customs and social behaviour of a people or a society. To put simple, politics rests upon culture.
There are a few societal behaviours shared by China, Vietnam and South Korea that are absent in the Western cultural tradition. First, the general tendency to value the collective over the individual. This fundamental premise is a legacy of Confucianism and an underlying concept to the notion of citizenship in China and culturally proximate countries. Confucius preached that the virtuous individual should be willing to sacrifice for the family, the neighbouring social circles, and ultimately the state.
Valuing the collective over the individual is a two-fold asset at a time like this: first, the Chinese, the Vietnamese and the South Koreans have arguably had less troubles than Europeans or Americans in accepting the idea of suffering any form of discomfort – isolation, in this case – for the common good. As such, they proved more disciplined. This is evidenced by the Chinese experts that were sent to Europe to help fighting the virus: “The main problem is that too many people are still out in the streets,” they declared to China’s State News Agency.
Secondly, the importance conferred by the individual on the state, combined with centralized policy-making, allowed the government to adopt cost-cutting strategies to deal with the crisis. For instance, central governments in China and Vietnam have been able to elude market rules in order to prioritize production of certain goods over others: this allowed to avoid the risk that key products – such as food, surgical masks, and sanitary products – get out of stock or become overly expensive.
Most European countries and the United States have been taking on some of the measures that proved successful in Asia, but recovery is nowhere near in sight. As Westerners, we feed into the idea that this imbalance is the result of the ideological premises of liberal democracy that grant citizens’ individual freedom instead of controlling and restraining them. This might be true. But on closer inspection, we might find that some aspects of existing liberal democracies exceeded those premises: undeterred individualism, the rule of the market, and the lack of state intervention, if unchallenged, may be our doom in the world of the future.