The track record of liberal democracies in Europe in fighting pandemics does not compare very favorably with that of Asian countries. This finding is especially relevant in comparison with two democracies: Taiwan and South Korea.
While infection figures are not easily comparable due to differences in the intensity of testing, country differences manifest themselves most validly in the number of people who have died.
Where South Korea beats Germany, yet again
To date, fewer than 1,500 people have died in South Korea, which has a population of 52 million. That compares to more than 60,000 people who have died in Germany with its 83 million people.
Beyond the human cost, there is also the economic one. South Korea’s GDP fell by just 1% in 2020 compared to 2019, while the German economy shrank by 5%.
In addition, to prevent an even greater economic slump, the German government has also taken on a large amount of debt. While this is certainly a sensible measure under the present circumstances, this debt will certainly severely restrict the government’s fiscal room of maneuver in the future.
They have what we still yearn for
The benefits of this superior performance also extend to the social and cultural sphere: Precisely because countries like South Korea and Taiwan managed to contain the spread of the infection very effectively and early on, social life could also resume after a relatively short interruption.
As it happens, that is something that most Western societies still badly yearn for. This fact alone should give us Europeans a far bigger incentive to open our minds much more to the strategies of these two countries. So far, that is regrettably not the case.
Some special factors at play
Of course, in comparison to Germany and Europe as a whole, South Korea’s and Taiwan’s successful performances reflect some special factors — including their prior experience with pandemics and the pandemic response infrastructure built on this basis.
Another relevant factor is the long-ingrained, pre-pandemic habit of protecting oneself in public by wearing masks. The lower average age of their respective populations also has a positive effect on the number of fatalities.
However, these differences alone are not sufficient to explain the success. This is where the regulatory dimension kicks in.
This is a dimension of politics of particular interest and relevance for Germany’s entire political and administrative class. After all, this has long assumed to be a strong comparative advantage of Germany’s.
In Taiwan, for example, those entering the country must go into strict quarantine for 14 days — either in a government-contracted hotel, or privately and controlled by radio cell tracking.
And anyone inside the country who got infected is put in strict isolation for the period during which they are contagious. That, too, is controlled — and failure to comply is harshly sanctioned. In contrast, in Germany the decision and the control of isolation is left to the infected person.
The IT dimension
Key Asian countries’ success in battling the pandemic also involves the aggressive use of data tracking.
Interestingly, the measures pursued in this regard have not even been properly discussed in most of Europe — and certainly not in Germany. Rather, they were categorically labeled early on as an encroachment on the informational self-determination of citizens.
No question: Electronic contact tracing of infected persons and the prompt digitized notification of all potential contacts carries a certain cost. Such a policy represents an at least temporary invasion of privacy.
But they also have a very relevant benefit with regard to combating the virus and safeguarding economic and social activities in the countries adopting this approach.
Obviously, such invasive IT measures must be subject to strict controls. Above all, it must be ensured that all data are reliably deleted after a very short time.
Weighing the benefits and the costs
But here is the curious thing: There was really no discussion about it at all, let alone a systematic review. That is all the more frustrating as Germany, like many other Western societies, could have learned from these measures and this experience.
Let us also not forget that any competent government prides itself on its refined ability to measure the pros and cons, the benefits and the costs of measures under consideration.
Such an evaluation may result in a finding that, upon closer examination, individual measures considered would constitute a disproportionate encroachment on civil liberties.
However, such learning by “best practice” did not — and still does not — take place. To make matters even worse, the fundamental disregard for the lessons from other societies is not restricted to the domain of the pandemic.
For example, Germany, a laggard on digitalization on many fronts, could have benefited greatly by resolving to adopt experiences from other countries in its education sector. At least the negative educational consequences of school closures could then have been alleviated.
Willful cultural ignorance?
With all this in mind, it is hard to deny a certain form of cultural arrogance — if not willful ignorance.
Such ignorance has a definite cost — falling behind in international competition and causing avoidable and hard-to-manage problems at home.
German TV: Navel-gazing
News programs on German TV did not help. Every evening, coverage of the pandemic revolves around events and policies at home.
Until the late fall of 2020, the dominant narrative in this country was that Germany was doing an excellent job of fighting the pandemic. Very little attention was raised to successful policies of other countries.
And when a comparative view was provided, it was mostly focused on Western countries, with the poor management by the United States under Trump and the UK under Johnson ranking very prominently.
It is hard to deny that at least the net effect of this practice was to make Germans feel better about the German government’s very mixed COVID 19 management performance record.
And when Asian countries were reported on, it was usually with a condescending undertone: These countries were restricting the civil liberties of their citizens in an inappropriate way with authoritarian measures, a path that was not considered desirable for their own country and not compatible with the self-image of the West.
Performance measurement beyond the pandemic
Unfortunately, the pandemic is not an isolated case. The West’s willful ignorance of successful policies in Asian countries is also evident in other policy areas — such as education.
Since the publication of the first PISA study 20 years ago, the mediocre performance of German students compared to their peers in many Asian countries has been well known. Moreover, it is well-known that education is the all-important resource for innovation and the future of a society.
And yet, any suggestion that large parts of Western Europe would be well-advised to focus on urgently catching up to those Asian countries outperforming the West is belittled. It is as if any such suggestion is deemed below the West’s sense of dignity.
Cultural arrogance is self-defeating
Such cultural arrogance is ultimately self-defeating. To be sure, it is not a useful competitive response.
And it is not a response either that will increase the level of well-being in other Western societies. Which, in turn, diminishes a society’s ability to undertake social spending to benefit the disadvantaged parts of the population.
It is revealing that so much focus has been put on Finland as a comparatively successful country in Europe on public education.
While that country was toured and praised time and again by education policy makers, the successes of the Asian democracies in this regard were either ignored and explained away as culturally inapplicable.
The sources of ignorance
Where does this ignorance come from? Almost 100 years ago, in 1922, the American sociologist William Ogburn formulated his theory of “cultural lag.” Today, it can help us explain the West’s ignorance of the development of Asian countries.
Ogburn assumed that our perceptions, cultural interpretations and evaluations lag behind the factual development of societies. In the case of Western ignorance about the successes of Asian countries in fighting pandemics, traditional images — often dating back to colonial times — seem to linger around in our minds.
Protecting our self-esteem
In order to protect our self-esteem, we cling to images of foreign peoples that are long outdated.
These “sticky” images contrast notions of backwardness, authoritarian and collectivist orientations — deemed uncivilized — about “them” with attributes of self-determination, individualism and progress assigned to the West.
This very stylized and utterly self-serving construction of reality is just that — a construct. As the differences in the success of coronavirus and education policies clearly show, it is high time to jettison the traditional narratives of continued, now post-colonial ignorance.
Instead, we ought to do ourselves a service by filtering out pragmatic and highly relevant lessons offered elsewhere on the globe. This isn’t so much about honoring “them” as helping ourselves.
Such readiness could have led to an effective and enlightened pandemic policy in Germany.
For this time around, it probably is too late. But COVID 19 will not be the last pandemic of the 21st century, and pandemic policy is not the only policy area where Western societies should learn from relevant countries in Asia.
Is it perhaps due to profound cultural arrogance that an advanced country like Germany has proven so dense-headed about learning from relevant Asian democracies in the fight against COVID 19?
While fewer than 1,500 people have died in densely populated South Korea (population: 52 million), more than 60,000 people have died in Germany (83 million people).
As it turns out, countries like South Korea and Taiwan may have executed the core task of governments in democracies -- a proper weighing of costs and benefits of actions and strategies -- much better than the supposedly advanced West.
The West in general does not just suffer from cultural arrogance, but willful ignorance. Such ignorance has a definite cost.
The West would do itself a great service by being on permanent lookout for relevant lessons to be gained elsewhere on the globe. Such a change of attitude isn’t so much about honoring “them” than about helping itself.
Jürgen Gerhards is Professor of Sociology at the Freie University Berlin.
Michael Zürn is the director of the research unit on Transnational Conflicts and International Institutions at the Social Science Research Center in Berlin and Director of the SCRIPTS project.