The Asian ‘Tiger’ countries have shown a level of readiness and efficiency unprecedented in the West, regardless of the costs to individual liberty.
There is no greater call to action for governments than an incurable, highly contagious, border-hopping viral disease.
The nature of the coronavirus pandemic — its tendency to thrive in social circles — demands that society unites with an aim of keeping a safe distance from one another. The much-needed distancing has come at the exorbitant cost of halting key economic activity and heavily restricting personal movement.
Apparently, not for Singapore and some Asian countries. Their measures involve widespread and indiscriminate testing complemented by strictly enforced isolation of carriers, whilst the unaffected populace is free to go about their daily routines. The pre-preparedness of the SARS-surviving nations has allowed them to avoid drastic lockdowns.
When the lockdown eases and the total economic cost has to be confronted, our government will have to justify the lack of measures taken in advance. What could have been done to avoid where we are right now and why weren’t those preventative actions taken?
In short: Why didn’t we do what Singapore (and others) did?
The ‘what’ part of the question is answered easily enough, but the ‘why’ implicates our society, as much as the government.
You see, the Asian successes are not just down to their pre-preparedness.
These governments have managed to break the cycle of virus transmission without severe disruption by utilising the crucial method of contact-tracing effectively. By being able to find the people that a carrier may have infected, and then regulating their self-isolation, the virus’ damaging contagiousness is curbed. Through the use of GPS-tracking technology, the state can go as far as warning someone if a carrier is in their vicinity.
Contact-tracing is being deployed around the world to combat the coronavirus, but the style used by the East- Asian governments is notable for its invasiveness. An NHS staffer will seek to trace contacts through a phone conversation with the diagnosed, whilst South Korean officials have a location-tracking app, and are able to release details about a carrier into the public space to warn others. It is not difficult to see which method will be more efficient and accurate in pinning the virus down.
The enacting of this kind of measure requires public acceptance of state surveillance; typically varying from culture to culture. Societies with traditionally authoritarian governments display a higher tolerance for state surveillance. In the case of the Asian nations, experience of the SARS epidemic also played a key role in enhancing approval of privacy-invading measures in the quest to prevent pandemics.
In liberal democracies like the UK, legitimising the state’s use of technology that provides access to highly personal information is unthinkable. The liberal governing system is dependent on a healthy amount of scepticism towards the state. We believe in limiting the state’s powers because we do not want to be held hostage to fickle temperaments or fluctuating bouts of righteousness.
Whilst we’d obviously prefer a social contract that better safeguards public interest and safety, we’re unwilling to take rash decisions with dangerous long-lasting consequences.
It seems as though we’ve reached a stalemate. Can we not have the desirable end without ethically questionable means of achieving it?
To answer this question, it’s necessary to shift the lens to the other half of the social contract: society itself. The public must be subject to the same scrutiny the government is under.
Having assessed the danger of the coronavirus, the British public has been successful in moving the government to take stronger measures and provide comprehensive economic support. Present and future generations will rightfully be reminded of the government’s slow reaction, mixed messaging and fluctuating stances.
However, we have not held up our end of the bargain.
Despite repeated pleas from the government, parks were visited in droves, public transport remains packed and stockpiling had to be viciously curtailed. Higher up the food chain, the super-rich are also safeguarding their own interests. They’re able to retreat from society altogether, without feeling a pinch to their lifestyle. Very few Western elites have contributed to the cause (if one were to discount the off-key song renditions … and I do).
Given the aversion to aggressive state action, you’d think that the public would have naturally stepped up to show higher levels of compliance with the state and solidarity with our fellow neighbours. This is, after all, the hope that we have nurtured: that challenging times will magically transform human beings into a version of the self that displays greater virtue.
It is now being revealed as a misconception. Tough times tend to amplify our nature, rather than prompt a sway — to our own detriment.
Having recognised this, it is also worth recognising that we cannot critique the self-interested behaviour of certain sections of society, when self-interest forms the basis of our social and economic interactions under normal circumstances. Our moral capacities are typically not given enough stimuli to develop — few professions demand it — and this can be attributed to the influence of neoclassical economics. For as long as we have developed our self-serving instincts, we have neglected the instincts of civic duty; our capacity to act with moral constraints formed by social considerations.
This pandemic has revealed a dire need for people to act entirely for the sake of others, ‘even if it would otherwise not be the preferred option’. One of the most vital lessons to take away from this pandemic would be to examine and refashion our social and economic systems to promote the sense of civic duty.