An illustration on the plasma of cured patients from Covid-19. Illustration: AFP / Voisin / Phanie

In countries on both sides of the Atlantic, the liberal democratic project looks increasingly threatened by the rise of populism and radical right-wing political movements.

These developments are embodied by the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the Jair Bolsonaro administration in Brazil, the victory of Brexit campaigners in the United Kingdom, and similar political developments in Italy and Hungary.

While some academics argue that the rise of populism in Atlantic states is not the cause of a crisis of governance, but its result, there is nevertheless some consensus that Western liberal democracy faces unprecedented challenges.

The same processes can also be seen at play in Asia.

Here, the world’s largest democracy, India, and the region’s oldest democracy, the Philippines, have been captured by the ethno-nationalism of Narendra Modi and the securitized populism of Rodrigo Duterte respectively.

Firebrands fail the test

At the same time, many of these administrations are also being criticized for exhibiting some of the worst failures of leadership in the face of the Covid-19 crisis.

At time of writing, at the top of the league table of Covid-19 infections and deaths, we have, in order of severity, the United States, Brazil, Russia, India, and the United Kingdom.

Of these, the only country that does not fit the model of democracies challenged by right-wing populism is Russia. The Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin can, however, be considered a populist and radically right-wing, ethno-nationalist administration. It only fails to conform to the above model because of doubts over its democratic credentials.

East beats West

The nations that have received the greatest plaudits for their handling of the governance challenges related to Covid-19 have, predominantly, been situated in East Asia.

These states are also democracies, albeit of maybe a different flavor to the Western liberal democratic model. These include South Korea and Taiwan to the fore and, to a lesser degree, Indonesia, Japan, and Singapore, where infections were dramatically reduced without resort to economically devastating universal lockdowns.

Asia Times has noted that perhaps the most startling trend visible in the global Covid-19 pandemic thus far is the vast differential separating East from West. East Asia has handled and contained the pandemic far better than the West on nearly all metrics.

Commentators outside the region have resorted to stereotypes about the inherent ease of ensuring conformity with laws and social mores in these societies. Yet praise and criticism of East Asian governance for supposed “Confucian” governance models misses the mark – just as it is a gross simplification to characterize Asian politics as leaning toward authoritarianism.

Nevertheless, there is a uniquely East Asian take on international norms concerning governance and policy making, and unique regional societal conditions.

During the pandemic, successful measures, such as contact tracing, mass testing and targeted quarantines, could, perhaps, only have been implemented swiftly and effectively in this region.

The Korean model

South Korea’s response to the crisis, while initially slow out of the blocks, has seen a combination of governmental policy and domestic constituency societal engagement win worldwide plaudits.

Of course, there have been many – more than 12,000 – infected in South Korea, and the economy has been dealt a serious blow. But the country stands out as a “shining light on the hill” when it comes to its actions.

What is behind Korea’s success? A combination of aggressive testing and contact tracing, plus near-universal mask use.

On the government side, due to the previous SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) pandemic scares, preparations were already in place to ramp up the production of test kits, masks, and personal protective equipment. Likewise, legal and technical work had already been done on contact-tracing technologies in what is arguably the most connected society in the world.

As for the public, Koreans were already well used to wearing masks because of air pollution and proved willing to accept a degree of invasiveness in their lives due to national-security considerations.

President Moon Jae-in has been accused of pandering to populism, but he was elected on a social solidarity platform, and his government seems to have caught the zeitgeist.

When masks ran low, and temptations rose to hoard or price-gouge, the government stepped in and rationed the number of price-controlled masks that could be bought by an individual. Depending on date of birth (noted on national identity cards), each citizen was allotted a day on which to buy.

Early during the pandemic, free hand sanitizer was to be found next to and in the elevators (and other spaces) of virtually every building.

With a slight resurgence of infections in May, tens of thousands of people were tested within days. Potentially infected persons were contacted to six degrees of separation, with the government cooperating with phone companies and bank-card issuers. And the wearing of masks on all forms of public transport became mandatory, rather than voluntary.

As a result, even with the recent cluster surge, Francesco Checchi of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the British Broadcasting Corporation that the swift identification and response could only reflect well upon South Korea.

This has generated significant political capital for the country as a whole, and for the political leadership. The latter was demonstrated by the unprecedented election victory for Moon’s Democratic Party in the April 15 National Assembly elections, and soaring opinion-poll ratings for Moon himself.

Rabble rousers, take note.

Brendan Howe is professor of international relations and former associate dean and department chairman of the Graduate School of International Studies, Ewha Womans University. He is also currently president of the Korea International Studies Association (KISA) and the Asian Political and International Studies Association (APISA). 

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