More than one commentator on the Covid-19 crisis has reverted to 19th-century paradigms of the “democratic” West versus the “despotic” East. While “Europeans are paying a price for living in open, affluent democracies, where people are used to free movement, easy travel and independent decision-making, and where governments worry about public opinion,” Richard Pérez-Peña, international editor of The New York Times, asserted on March 19. “But China acted with a severity and breadth that stunned the West, making unpopular moves and accepting deep economic damage as the price of containing the disease.”
This is, of course, nonsense. South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan are "open, affluent democracies" and have handled the crisis relatively well.Some Western democracies are deploying severe measures to stop the virus, and people everywhere are homebound.
Statements such as Pérez-Peña’s, however, must be taken seriously for the troubling support they lend to overt forms of xenophobia coming from the White House and other sources. Even more dangerously, they cloud our thinking about the best course of action in this and future pandemics by attacking democracy itself instead of the democracies that are failing due to corruption, distrust in government, repudiation of science, and high rates of inequality.
First, an obvious point: Asia is large – and China is only one country in it. There are democracies in Asia at least as vibrant as those in the West. Europeans and Americans are not paying the price of democracy when their states fail to cope with this pandemic. They are paying the price of failed democracies. Pérez-Peña mentions Korea and Taiwan toward the end of his article, but their forms of government go unremarked so that the global bifurcation between Western governments not “used to giving harsh orders” and the draconian East is neatly (and conveniently) maintained.