If you had asked anyone a year ago who would be best placed to deal with the Corona pandemic, many would have guessed the West: North America, Europe, the developed industrial nations. In Germany in particular, people are used to major crises arriving here only in a greatly mitigated form, if at all. And in the spring of 2020, it looked as if it would be the same again. Thanks to relatively fewer cases of infection and death, Germans felt superior to many other countries, especially their neighbours in Europe.
That was premature. Today, Germany is among the ten countries with the highest total numbers of infections and deaths. On the global Corona map, two continents in particular are deep red: America and Europe. Other regions to which we normally only travel with a well-stocked first-aid kit are in a better position. These include above all Africa and Asia, two continents that used to be counted as part of the "Third World. This was definitely to be understood as a pecking order: here the stable West, there the backward emerging and developing countries.
This equation, whose roots go back to colonial times, no longer applies in the pandemic. The Corona epidemic is the first major crisis in which the proportions are reversed. Western societies are struggling with their vulnerability, while things are more under control in the East.
The United States was hit hardest
Two figures express this vividly. The country hit hardest by Corona is the United States. As of Monday, more than 520,000 deaths had been counted there. In Taiwan, located in close proximity to the outbreak's source, China, the number was ten. In Germany, there is surprisingly little interest in the reasons for this. The discussion usually ends with the statement that a democratic country can learn nothing from the rigid methods used by a dictatorship like China to combat the virus. However, the matter is not quite that simple.
There are probably many factors influencing the spread of corona around the world. In Africa, for example, a young population seems to have kept the death toll comparatively low. People lived more outside and traveled less in the world, is another thesis. These are, of course, things that are difficult to replicate in modern societies like Germany's, which are part of the globalized world of work.
The situation is different in parts of Asia. There are developed societies in which a lifestyle is cultivated that is similar to that of the West. Japan even has a population that is a little older than that of Germany. But even so, in Asia, the most densely populated continent, with some exceptions, there is no diffuse infection, but more local outbreaks.
Are "Asian values" decisive?
Some people are quick to come up with cultural explanations: In Asia, people are more considerate or more likely to follow rules. This is somewhat reminiscent of the old theory of "Asian values," according to which the West is individualistic and hedonistic, while the East is community-oriented and disciplined. But isn't it the Germans who are considered particularly law-abiding? And can all the countries in Asia, which are characterized by very different customs and traditions, really be lumped together?
Something else stands out much more: Asia relied heavily on digital technology, be it GPS tracking, cell phone apps, cameras or bank data, to enforce quarantines and track contacts. The use of Big Data unites countries as diverse as communist China, authoritarian Singapore and democracies in Taiwan or South Korea. For the liberal countries in particular, the question of which fundamental rights to restrict for disease control was no less sensitive than for us. They decided to sacrifice parts of data protection; however, citizens in South Korea, for example, still had legal recourse against the measures.
In return, we have curtailed other fundamental rights much more, such as freedom of movement, freedom of occupation and freedom of assembly. The German Corona warning app, which has been downloaded millions of times, is symptomatic of this and has not made any significant contribution to containing the epidemic to date.
The result is bitter. In Asia, where modernity is worshipped as it once was in Germany during the Wilhelminian era, not everyone, but many people have been able to live a more carefree life than we have in recent months. Europe, which has long struggled with technological progress, was left only with the medieval method of lockdown and waiting for vaccinations. Perhaps one day historians will write that the Corona pandemic was the beginning of the Asian Age.