TThe Bloomberg COVID Resilience Rankings released on April 26 listed seven East Asian countries among the top 12 performers. None of the major Western economies have done magic 12. Meanwhile, the number of deaths per million from COVID in China in the seven days leading up to April 19 was zero. The record of other East Asian countries for the same seven days is also impressive: Vietnam was zero, Singapore zero, South Korea 0.5, Malaysia 1.4, Japan 1.72 , Indonesia 2.06, Thailand 0.06 and Indonesia 2.84. Despite the recent infection hiccups in Taiwan, the morning of the post-pandemic era has erupted in East Asia. In contrast, the Western pillars recorded a worse situation in terms of deaths per million for the same period: 139 for the United States, 15.11 for Germany, 23 for France, for the United Kingdom 10, 38 , 3 for Italy, 16.2 for Sweden, 21.6 for Austria, and for the Netherlands 6 deaths in a million, although Australia and New Zealand seem to fare better. (Statista.com).
Meanwhile, the Philippines ranks 45the of the 53 countries in the Bloomberg COVID Resilience ranking. And the Philippines, at 7.5 deaths per million that week, remains the exception that proves the rule of East Asian exceptionalism. How will government media platforms, on recent instructions, turn these facts around to make the Philippines look more beautiful? A simple solution: focus on India.
What seems to emerge from the data that is proving to be robust is that East Asia is once again proving to be exceptional (Ma, Wang & Wu, March 2021). Has the East Asian exceptionalism, which once fueled the miracle economies of East Asia, once again shown resistance against the COVID-19 pandemic?
Resilience has been pushed into the upper echelons of ideas in the post-pandemic economic recovery discourse (see, for example, Folke, April 29, 2021, PDI; World Bank, Spring 2021). How to build greater resilience in our future? Resilience, in simple terms, is the ability to bounce back from misfortune or stressful situation. There is more to this. In every stable system, there is enough flexibility built into it to survive minor disturbances. The human brain is endowed with a surprising amount of plasticity to maintain its functions when certain substrates are compromised. Bruneau et al (2003) qualified this characteristic as “robustness”, a characteristic largely of engineering. The bridges are equipped with redundancies or modernized to resist oscillations due to wind and traffic. I say “largely engineering” because robustness also has a behavioral component: layoffs are expensive and require a human decision as to when and how much additional capital to deploy. More expensive double hull ships were known but did not become the norm until single hull ships. Titanicdisastrous encounter with an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The capitalists and insurers then decided that the time had come to initiate the additional investment.
But resilience is also the ability to quickly repair damage when built-in robustness fails. Bruneau et al. calls this “ingenuity” which determines how quickly the system recovers some form of enduring normalcy, not necessarily the original one. Ecological resilience to that of Holling (1973) is the ability to absorb and survive disasters even when the old stationary state is gone for good (“new normal” in today’s parlance). The Warpspeed Immunization Program exemplifies Rose and Krausemann’s (2013) definition of dynamic economic resilience: the ability to hasten recovery by redeploying human and non-human resources towards repair and / or innovation. It is likely that ingenuity enabled homo sapiens to survive the disturbances that wiped out other hominids, Neanderthals and Denisovans. Yuval Harari (2012) identifies the ability to cooperate in large numbers as the special adaptation that has enabled homo sapiens to survive the adversities of the biosphere and ultimately dominate it. Resourcefulness is behavioral and cultural in nature rather than engineering.
Have East Asians been more resilient during the pandemic? The observable result of reduced damage and faster recovery suggests “yes”. Is it due to greater robustness or greater ingenuity? Conclude Ma, Wang and Wu: “Our analysis shows that the success of East Asia, compared to the six selected Western companies, can be attributed to stronger and faster government responses, as well as better civic cooperation»(Italics mine). These attributes tend towards greater ingenuity after the epidemic. As Western liberal democracies hesitated over whether or not to roll out lockdowns – which inevitably involve restrictions on individual freedoms – most governments in East Asia have plunged into draconian measures with the firm. belief that their audiences would respect. Such daring will however beg if the government is not in tune with its public.
Why were East Asian audiences more in tune with their governments, at least on the response to the pandemic? There are at least two possible sources: The first is experiential – over the past two decades, the most significant pandemics have been greeted and done the most damage in East Asia. What was only vicarious for foreigners was a direct experience for East Asians. Gino, Argote, Miron-Spector and Todorova (2010) have shown that the direct experience of tasks persists longer in the mind and elicits more creative responses than a simple proxy experience. “Learning by doing” by K Arrow and “What does not kill you…” by F. Nietzsche are well-known canons in the social sciences.
The second is cultural: the cult of the individual has become much more dominant in Western liberal democracies than in East Asia. This is illustrated by the more intense privacy debate in the West than in East Asia. Everywhere in Western societies one finds the Kantian view that each individual is an end in itself and should not be used as a means to achieve such collectively beneficial ends. It echoes Pareto’s rigid ethics: a welfare state that strictly improves the situation of many others but leaves at least one member worse off should not be preferred to the state where all remain in misery. The group of concepts only has meaning as an accessory to the individual.
In East Asia, however, the idea that the group and the individual are inextricably linked to each other remains a strong undercurrent; the well-being of the greatest number cannot be held hostage to the well-being of some. The ancient Japanese agricultural tradition, if it is now abandoned Ubasute illustrates this: when another child is born into a farm family in difficulty, the Uba (grandmother) is carried by her son to the forest in winter and left there to die. No hard feelings, just sadness born out of dark resignation. This intense group loyalty to the point of self-immolation is sometimes associated with Confucianism, with respect for authority and for oneself as undefined outside the group; the individual only has meaning if he is integrated. The latter is the often-cited explanation of suicides in East Asia: failure shames and disintegrates one of his group; suicide puts finished to the non-definition. The same explains why the ostracism in East Asian societies falls as a death sentence for the victims. De Tocqueville (1835) rightly feared that this cult of the group was a step towards the “tyranny of the majority”, the mother of wars and pogroms.
When the famous ‘fat man and cart paradox’ rubber met the road of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments in East Asia did not think twice, so to speak, pushing the fat one man under the cart to save 10 people down the line. ; Western governments, on the other hand, went catatonic for a fraction of a second and missed the cart. Did the Philippines also miss the cart on the same hesitation?
Raul V. Fabella is Honorary Professor at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), Fellow of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), and retired Professor at the University of the Philippines. He gets his dose of dopamine by hitting tennis balls with his wife Teena and riding a bike.