Saturday, March 14, 2020

Coronavirus: East vs. West

It’s not the first and won’t be the last attempt to analyze the cultural differences between Asian and European countries. The Wall Street Journal compares the way that Korea, for instance, has gotten the coronavirus under control with the way that Italy has not.

In Asia people submit to authority willingly. Once their leaders issue a decree they are inclined to obey.

The Journal describes the situation, thusly:

In South Korea, as in Japan and Taiwan, the lingering cultural imprint of Confucianism gives a paternalistic state a freer hand to intrude in people’s lives during an emergency, says Lee Sung-yoon, an international-relations professor at Tufts University.

“Most people willingly submit themselves to authority and few complain,” Mr. Lee said. “The Confucian emphasis on respect for authority, social stability and the good of the nation above individualism is an ameliorating factor in a time of national crisis.”

From willing submission among Asians we move to the Italian model, which involves seeing what you can get away with, thus, defying authority. One consequences has been that the Italian government has needed to introduce far more draconian rules, accompanied by more strict enforcement:

In Italy, reducing social interactions took a government decree ordering the whole nation not to gather in groups nor to move about unless essential. It was an unprecedented step for Italians.

“I’m not surprised they did it. We had to reach this point, because you need to force Italians to do things by law,” said Sara Nicodemo, a 24-year-old concierge at an apartment block. “Everybody was ignoring recommendations. This is how we function.”

It continues:

In Italy, as in many Western countries, reactions to the coronavirus reflect a different social contract that limits the claims of the collective, as well as a widespread skepticism toward authority that has its own deep historical roots.

The irony is that, to influence behavior, easygoing Italy has now suspended personal freedoms to a far sharper degree than Asian democracies.

Like certain other countries, Italy encourages an ethic of personal preference. And it places personal preference ahead of the common good:

The government in Rome is trying hard to persuade the population that, despite the decree, success rests in citizens’ hands if they put public spirit ahead of personal preferences. It’s a hard sell.

An Italian tradition has long venerated being furbo, or cunning, by evading the rules—a legacy of centuries of viewing public authorities as incompetent, capricious and self-serving. So when Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called on Italians to cooperate with the national quarantine, he said: “We must not think about being furbo.”

In the U.S. and Europe, warning sirens from health officials have similarly won a less-than-urgent response from citizens, health experts say. “There’s a premium on the individualistic Western mind to be defiant,” said Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist and former World Health Organization official.

Like Italians many Americans prefer to evade the rules, even to the point of being defiant. Perhaps this quality will make it more difficult for the West to overcome the virus.

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