Covid 19 – Taiwan in East Asia

Written by Ian Inkster.

Image sharing: Spanish troops deployed in response to COVID-19 by NATO/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In Britain today (I April) the latest news included the claim that 800,000 small businesses would go to the wall within four weeks in the absence of effective emergency loans from the government. It’s April Fools’ Day, but I shall indeed eat my hat (which is large, rather worn and with a very wide rim) if in four weeks some 2.4 million additional people front up amongst the qualified unemployed – and that is using a modest x3 multiplier for the number of people employed in such firms. It’s a classic claim for the elements of this crisis in the West – firms that cannot manage a few weeks in crisis without outside funding, emergency loans that are not actually available, banks so greedy they are charging at rates not quite explicable in terms of crisis funding backed by the government. We really did hear little of any of this from East Asia when it began to face a similar upturn in cases and mortality some two months ago. Yet each of the six great East Asian economies faced similar threats with much larger numbers of small firms in their midst.

The East Asian capacity for self-help is not an illusion nor irrelevant to our further understanding of the global Covid 19 crisis. More of this later. First, a few statistics that put East Asia in some perspective, derived from my analysis of the figures available on 28-29 March. All figures are problematic and very temporary, but the death/cases ratio seems sturdy in that the numerator is visible, which is more difficult to hide and easier to find than most of the measures being bandied about elsewhere. Comparing the four major Western nations USA, UK, Italy and Spain, with the six East Asian nations, then the average ratios are 6.3% for the West, and 3.7 % for East Asia, with 4.7% as the global average. Thus, the East Asian nations have seemingly been much more successful at keeping mortality down. The extremes at that date were 10.8 % for Italy, 0.7% for Taiwan. In terms of cases per million, Italy equalled 1,529, Taiwan equalled 13, the same as Japan with its much larger population. In terms of global cases, the East Asian group accounted for 14%, the Western four for 45% of the total. With 81,439 reported cases, China represented 12% of world cases, but in terms of cases per million China reported 57, much lower than each of the western four.

So there seems something of an issue to address, especially in terms of the death/cases ratios, which can be taken as rough indicators of the extent to which a nation or region managed the virus effectively enough to reduce mortality, this involving national medical and social processes that mere incidence or cases do not measure, for the latter can be reflections of pure luck or the extent and reliability of identifying and testing.

Taiwan did very well even within the East Asian group, for despite its clear proximity, it reported with Japan the joint lowest cases per million and a death/cases ratio only half of that of South Korea, a nation with which it is certainly comparable for many purposes. Within the sub-group of Newly Industrialised Asian nations, South Korea easily dominated in terms of number of cases, with 9,585 compared to a total of 1,783 for the remaining three – Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. All these examples illustrated the value of early identification, isolation and rapid government action, especially in supplies and health/hospital care, and good civil compliance, to which I shall return below. It seems almost counterfactual that Taiwan now is in the position to donate 10 million masks to Europe and the US. The Korean lesser management efficiency cannot be explained in gross population terms, for its cases were 187 per million compared to Singapore’s 144 and Hong Kong’s 86; Taiwan and Japan being exceptional with only 13 per million reported. Singapore was exceptional in its death/cases ratio, being the lowest not only in East Asia but also seemingly in Asia as a whole. At the global level, only outlier nations of unusual character, such as Iceland or South Africa, reported death/cases ratios lower than that of Singapore – both these nations reported first cases only very recently and Iceland has a small population on a relatively large area, thus its deaths/cases ratio was 0.2% but its cases per million numbered 2,989!

Admitting that all figures during the crisis must be problematic but arguing that the death/cases ratios are reasonably sturdy amidst perpetual change, can we forward tentative generalisations? Within and between groups, standards of living seem to have been fairly irrelevant: using a normal purchasing power parity approach, the two groups of western and east Asian nations hardly differ. Medical and scientific knowledge should have reversed our observed figures – the four western nations having the highest of scientific and medical capabilities as well as facilities, the Asian nations suffering from greater proximity to the epicentre as well as less time to prepare in both public and private sectors – other East Asian nations had no more than one to two weeks to learn from China, the West had an additional one or two weeks. Government policy might be introduced as a causal variable here; this is certainly the locus of considerable global debate. However, I have argued elsewhere that governments could only be effective where civil society was in active, if not energetic compliance, and it is this which takes us back to my first paragraph. To that extent, the effectiveness of governments can be seen at least partially in terms of civil society response, which then becomes something of an overall explication.

The virus outbreak might well be viewed as a global laboratory for the functioning of humanity’s cultures and values, even for some comparative testing of different moral and behavioural systems across, between, and within today’s nation states. Why did East Asia seem to have earlier and more total compliance with official policies than has been the case in the US or UK or Italy or France? If this is not explicable in economic, knowledge, proximity or geographical terms, then culture comes to the fore. Democratic individualism does not seem to have conjured up the character and extent of response that we seem to have witnessed in East Asia – a region permeated by a fused Confucian and Buddhist tradition, which often flies in the face of the much-vaunted behavioural models promoted by western officialdom as a basis for their procedures in managing the crisis. If benevolence is of the essence in everyday situations, then perhaps policing is less required in crisis situations. Of course, identifying this sort of cultural contrast might not help as cultural mores and values, encapsulated in social customs and conventions, cannot be changed even within a generation, so we might be learning lessons that cannot be applied elsewhere.

Ian Inkster is professorial research associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London; a senior fellow at the Taiwan Studies Programme, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham; and the editor of the international journal, History of Technology.

This article is part of special issue on the Covid-19. Along with our special issue, we also introduce a timely special issue of the International Journal of Taiwan Studies (IJTS) on “Taiwan, Public Diplomacy, and WHA”. Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO and the WHA is now a major cause for concern. To understand the reasons, consequences and possible remedies for Taiwan’s exclusion, one has to adopt a multi-disciplinary perspective. In this IJTS’s special issue, we have brought together political scientists, IR specialists, communication scholars, and health experts. For more details, please visit here.

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