Asia’s Covid-19 Lessons for The West: Public Goods, Privacy, and Social Tagging
July 16, 2020
Epidemiologists universally acknowledge that communities in Asia including in Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam have been more successful than the United States and most European countries in “flattening the curve” and limiting the spread of the Covid-19 virus among its populations. Despite the relative proximity of human-to-human transmission with China, the total number of cases and deaths as of May 2020 for these five countries is unusually small compared to the United States, Italy, and other European states. South Korea discovered its first positive case within one day of the United States but slowed the infection rate by the end of February. The United States, by contrast, exceeded 1.1 million cases and was still on the incline in late April. Singapore has demonstrated the lowest mortality rate for the virus and succeeded in initially suppressing infection rates with quarantines and social distancing. And all these Asian societies have managed to maintain some degree of normalcy and economic well-being compared with the lockdown and economic freefall in the United States.
While early response and well-executed national plans were critical, one of the commonalities among the Asian cases is the willingness of populations to adopt high-tech means of contact tracing to limit the spread of the virus. For countries in the West still suffering from the virus, political leaders struggle over the tradeoff between privacy rights and the use of smartphone app-tracking technology for contact tracing. For Americans in particular, whose response to Covid-19 has been neither swift nor well-executed, there may be no choice but to employ these high-tech methods absent universal antibody testing, therapeutics, or a vaccine.
In this article, I will distill some of the lessons learned from Asia’s Covid-19 pandemic response for the United States and Europe. I will also look at why Asian populations have been more accepting of smartphone app-based digital tracing than the United States. The answers have less to do with culture and more to do with a civic willingness to embrace technologies that provide a valuable public good despite the privacy incursions—the confidence to feel healthy and safe as they leave the home, go to work, and engage in social activities in the new normal of virus-laden environments.