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28 January 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 1:48pm

Why strict policies, not Confucian values, explain East Asia’s Covid-19 success

East Asia’s early restrictions have increasingly been adopted across the West, undermining myths of “freedom-loving” publics.

By Ido Vock

The UK government announced this week that it will institute a system of hotel quarantine for some arrivals from abroad, almost a year after several other countries including South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand imposed such policies. The decision, taken to limit the possibility of vaccine-resistant viral strains entering the UK, may herald similar policy shifts from other developed nations that have so far resisted these restrictive, yet effective, border controls.

Hotel quarantine is just the latest addition to the list of policy interventions slowly bringing Western countries in line with many in East Asia – from mask wearing to contact tracing apps and even lockdowns themselves – all of which were initially met with scepticism outside of Asia.

That intrusive measures such as those implemented in South Korea and Taiwan were not adopted in the West early on was, in part, because East Asian societies were viewed as intrinsically different, more accepting of such restrictions on freedom. Some commentators ascribed East Asia’s success at containing the virus to nebulous “Confucian values”, which supposedly give “a paternalistic state a freer hand to intrude in people’s lives during an emergency”. East Asians were characterised as less self-interested and more willing to put collective interests above individual rights and, as such, they were more prepared than liberty-loving Westerners to give up more of their privacy and freedoms, as S Nathan Park wrote for Foreign Policy last year.

But Westerners are apparently just as willing to accept harsh restrictions, though their leaders believed otherwise. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the UK, where the crisis began with Boris Johnson lamenting on 20 March 2020 that closing restaurants and pubs goes against “the freedom-loving instincts of the British people”. It will likely end with a total of six months or more of virtual national house arrest. The UK Home Secretary encouraged neighbours to report violators to the police; seemingly inoffensive social activities, such as meeting a few friends for a coffee, are now criminalised, with the threat of large fines.

[see also: How South Korea’s Covid-19 success faltered]

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Few people enjoy lockdown, but, by and large, the public recognises the importance and necessity of the measures. Polls in most Western countries have shown overwhelming support for restrictions to slow the spread of Covid-19, even if they infringe on personal and collective liberties.

It’s true that the enforcement of many of these policies goes much further in East Asia than in the West, even now. Those who break self-isolation orders and hotel quarantine rules in the slightest way can be fined astronomical sums: one man in Taiwan was fined $3,500 for stepping outside his hotel room for eight seconds. In South Korea, credit card transactions are logged and used to track the movements of positive cases, in addition to mobile phone location logs. People who lie to contact tracers are jailed.

But the fact remains that since the beginning of the pandemic, the measures East Asia instituted early on have progressively been replicated across the West. Recommendations morphed into legally binding measures enforced with the threat of ever-larger fines.

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The distinction is not one of intrinsic values or national character, but rather the attitudes of governments. Indeed, Australia and New Zealand, two countries not traditionally thought of as “Confucian” in outlook, implemented many of the same harsh policies early on, with the same results.

[Hear more on the World Review podcast]

In the absence of centralised infrastructure, Westerners are largely expected to stick to such measures of their own accord. Some overwhelmed health authorities, whose contact tracers are unable to keep up with tens of thousands of new cases a day, ask people who test positive to get in touch with contacts themselves. (When I caught coronavirus in October, Berlin contact tracers got in touch 13 days after I received a positive result, by which time all my contacts were already out of isolation.)

And while the risk of penalties is much lower in the West, due to laxer enforcement, on paper the fines are just as harsh. In Germany, for instance, failure to comply with quarantine can be punished with a fine of up to €25,000.

There are two important lessons here. The first is that romantic self-mythologising from Western leaders about their “freedom-loving” peoples is just that: mythologising. Most people recognise that the greatest freedom of all is for their friends and family to be safe and healthy – and are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices to ensure this. Whether the measures came earlier, in the form of aggressive contact tracing and border restrictions, or later, in the form of lockdowns and limits on gatherings, the immense majority in every country, East Asian or not, follow the rules for the sake of the collective good.

[see also: Why the West failed to contain Covid-19]

The second is that a reluctance to impose restrictions on a supposedly resistant public has backfired dramatically. A Taiwanese or South Korean citizen has been infinitely freer than the average Westerner for all of last year. Bars and clubs are open as normal in the few countries that contained the virus. If you want to be really infuriated by the current limitations on your social life, find a club in Seoul or Taipei on Instagram and look at the recent photos posted.

Most importantly, the UK has now recorded more deaths in one day (1,800 at the peak) than South Korea has in total since the beginning of the pandemic (1,386).

What each country that contained coronavirus has in common, from New Zealand to Taiwan, is that they bet that limiting the freedom of fewer people – arrivals at the borders, positive cases and their contacts – would allow the majority to live freely. Strict policies explain their coronavirus success – not Confucius.