The Bloomberg COVID Resilience Ranking that came out on April 26 had seven East Asian countries among the top 12 performers. None of the big Western economies made the magic 12. Meanwhile, China’s COVID deaths per million in the seven days before April 19 was zero. The record of other East Asian countries for the same seven days is also impressive: Vietnam’s was zero, Singapore’s zero, South Korea’s 0.5, Malaysia’s 1.4, Japan’s 1.72, Indonesia’s 2.06, Thailand’s 0.06, and Indonesia’s 2.84. Despite the recent hiccups of infection in Taiwan, the morning of the post-pandemic era has broken in East Asia. By contrast, Western stalwarts fared worse in deaths per million for the same period: the USA’s 139, Germany’s 15.11, France’s 23, the UK’s was 10, Italy’s 38.3, Sweden’s 16.2, Austria’s 21.6, and the Netherlands’s was six deaths per million, although Australia and New Zealand seem to fare better. (Statista.com).
Meanwhile, The Philippines ranked 45th of the 53 countries in the Bloomberg COVID Resilience Ranking. And the Philippines, at 7.5 deaths per million in that week, remains the exception that proves the rule of East Asian exceptionalism. How the government media platforms will, upon recent instructions, spin these facts to make the Philippines look better bears watching. One easy out: focus on India.
What seems to spring out of the data which is proving robust is that East Asia is once again proving exceptional (Ma, Wang and Wu, March 2021). Has East Asian exceptionalism, which once nurtured the East Asian miracle economies, once again reared its head as resilience against the COVID-19 pandemic?
Resilience has been thrust among the upper echelons of ideas in the post-pandemic economic recovery discourse (see, e.g., Folke, April 29, 2021, PDI; World Bank, Spring 2021). How do we build greater resilience into our future? Resilience, simply put, is the capacity to bounce back from a misfortune or a stressful situation. There is more to it. In every stable system, there is enough built-in flexibility to survive minor disruptions. The human brain is endowed with a surprising amount of plasticity to maintain functions when some substrate becomes compromised. Bruneau et al (2003) called this feature “robustness,” a largely engineering feature. Bridges are equipped with redundancies or retrofitted to withstand wobbles from wind and traffic. I say “largely engineering” because robustness has a behavioral component as well: redundancies are costly and require a human decision as to when and how much additional capital to deploy. More costly double-hulled ships were known but did not become the norm before the single-hulled Titanic’s disastrous encounter with an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Capitalists and insurers decided then that the time was now right to commit the extra investment.
But resilience is also the capacity to mend the damage quickly when the built-in robustness fails. Bruneau et al. calls this “resourcefulness” which determines how rapid the system recovers some form of sustained normality, not necessarily the original one. Ecological resilience to Holling’s (1973) is the capacity to absorb and survive catastrophes even when the old steady state is gone for good (“new normal” in current parlance). The Warpspeed vaccine program exemplifies Rose and Krausemann’s (2013) definition of dynamic economic resilience: the capacity to hasten the recovery by redeploying human and non-human resources towards repair and/or innovation. It is likely that resourcefulness allowed homo sapiens to survive disruptions that wiped out other hominids, Neanderthals and Denisovans. Yuval Harari (2012) singles out the capacity to cooperate in large numbers as the special adaptation that allowed homo sapiens to survive adversities of and eventually dominate the biosphere. Resourcefulness is behavioral and cultural rather than engineering in nature.
Were East Asians more resilient during the pandemic? The observable outcome of less damage and quicker recovery suggests “yes.” Was it due to greater robustness or greater resourcefulness? Conclude Ma, Wang and Wu: “Our analysis shows that East Asia’s success, compared with the six selected Western societies, can be attributed to stronger and more prompt government responses, as well as better civic cooperation” (italics mine). These attributes lean towards greater resourcefulness coming after the outbreak. While Western liberal democracies waffled on whether to deploy lockdowns — that inevitably imply curtailments of individual freedoms — and how stringent they should be, most East Asian governments plunged into draconian measures on the firm belief that their publics would abide. Such boldness will, however, go begging if the government is not in tune with its public.
Why were East Asian publics 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 — in the last two decades, the most important pandemics were hosted by, and did most damage in, East Asia. What was merely vicarious to outsiders was a direct experience to East Asians. Gino, Argote, Miron-Spector and Todorova (2010) showed that direct experience with tasks persists longer in the mind and spurs more creative responses than mere vicarious experience. K Arrow’s “learning by doing” and F. Nietzsche’s “What does not kill you…” are well-known canons in the social science.
The second is cultural: the cult of the individual has become much more dominant in western liberal democracies than in East Asia. This is exemplified by the more intense debate on privacy in the West than in East Asia. Everywhere in Western societies one finds the Kantian view that every individual is an end in itself and should not be used as a means towards ends however collectively beneficial. It echoes the rigid Pareto ethic: a social state that makes many others strictly better off but leaves at least one member worse off is not to be preferred to the state where all stay put even in misery. The concept group has meaning only as ancillary to the individual.
In East Asia, however, the idea that the group and the individual are inextricably bound together remains a strong undercurrent; the welfare of the many cannot be held hostage to the welfare of some. The old, if now discarded, Japanese farming tradition of Ubasute illustrates this: When another child is born to a struggling farm family, the Uba (grandma) is carried by her son to the forest in winter and there left to die. No rancor, just sadness born with grim resignation. This intense loyalty the group to the point of self-immolation is sometimes associated with Confucianism, of respect for authority and of the self as undefined apart from the group; the individual has meaning only if integrated. The latter is the oft-alluded to explanation for suicides in East Asia: one’s failure brings shame to and dis-integrates one from one’s group; suicide puts finis to the un-definition. The same explains why ostracism in Eastern Asian societies falls like a death sentence on the victims. De Tocqueville (1835) rightly worried that this cult of the group is a step towards the “tyranny of the majority,” a mother to wars and pogroms.
When rubber of the famous “fat man and trolley paradox” met the road of the COVID-19 pandemic, East Asian governments did not think twice about, as it were, pushing the fat man under the trolley to save the 10 people down the line; western governments by contrast became catatonic for a split second and missed the trolley. Did the Philippines also miss the trolley on the same hesitancy?
Raul V. Fabella is an Honorary Professor of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and a retired professor of the University of the Philippines. He gets his dopamine fix from hitting tennis balls with wife Teena and bicycling.