In the battle against the coronavirus, Japan and the four ‘tiger economies’ offer the world a new ‘Asian miracle’

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Back in the 1980s, it was fashionable to talk about Japan and the “four Asian tigers” – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan – and the “Asian miracle”. These economies were said to have a unique mix of can-do Confucianism and market know-how that allowed them to post the fastest economic growth the world had ever seen. The World Bank even commissioned a major report looking for the secret to the tigers’ success, the “East Asian miracle” study.
Then Japan’s asset bubble deflated and the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis hit the tigers. The demographic dividend of the post-war years dwindled as these countries aged. Growth slowed and the Asian economic story didn’t look so magical any more. The tigers had paws of clay.
Now that we live in a time of coronavirus, simple survival is more important than 6-8 per cent growth. And it seems that Japan and the Asian tigers have something special to show us after all, as these places seem to be doing better than just about anywhere else in keeping Covid-19 under control. This is not a coincidence.
The numbers are striking. These five economies have recorded only 384 deaths from Covid-19, as of April 14, despite having a combined population of 215 million. That’s a much lower death rate – and a lower infection rate – than countries ranging from China to the United States. The US population is about 330 million, yet it’s recorded more than 22,000 deaths, 70 times as high. China, with six times the population of Japan and the tigers, has about 10 times the Covid-19 death toll.
Japan and the Asian tigers each have quite different systems, from freewheeling Taiwan to buttoned-down Japan and Singapore. Some have high smoking rates – which are linked to Covid-19 deaths – and some low ones. Some have higher obesity rates – another factor that might be linked to Covid-19 mortality – than others.
The relatively low rates of Covid-19 infections and low death rates in all of them are a combination of good public health and medical systems; open and tolerant societies, where bad news can move up the chain; and cohesive societies, in which people have a strong sense of a larger social good and are willing to sacrifice – by social distancing, wearing masks, submitting to quarantine. The rest of the world needs to look a lot harder at this new version of the East Asia miracle.
Strong public health systems are not a matter of the hi-tech medicine at which the US excels – and which has proven utterly unable to cope with the Covid-19 onslaught. The US spends almost 18 per cent of its gross domestic product on health care, twice the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average, yet it almost immediately ran out of the most basic 75-cent face masks, let alone expensive ventilators.
Part of Japan and the tigers’ success to date comes down to practice, and to remembering that a government’s first duty is protect its people. These five economies are part of a region that in the past 20 years has endured outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome, avian flu, swine flu, Nipah virus, and Middle East respiratory syndrome. Temperature checks are a matter of routine.
Contact tracing is far more thorough and systematic than in most places. Protocols are generally put into place quickly to deal with new disease outbreaks. South Korea’s success in ramping up testing is globally recognised. So, too, is Taiwan’s integration of its immigration database with its health insurance database. There are holes in all these systems, but the overall picture is impressive.
Pointing out that people in Japan and the tiger economies are generally more willing to consider group interests rather than their narrow individual interests is a cliché. But it’s still by and large true. On the whole, the willingness to wear masks and take good hygiene and social distancing seriously has proven effective.
Finally, all five economies have transparency at their heart. They have accountability, elected officials and independent journalists and NGOs which hold companies and governments accountable.
When the histories of Covid-19 are written, some of the most impressive lessons will be learned from Japan and the tigers. They’ll be lessons about technology, of course, but they will also be about systems, trust and openness to learn from mistakes and improve.
For as much as we make a fetish of technology, people matter most in controlling epidemics. There is a deserted courtyard garden near the southern edge of Hong Kong Park that hosts bronze busts of seven of the eight medical workers who died in Hong Kong during Sars. Looking again at the faces of those who died, as I did on a visit earlier this week, reminded me how lucky we are in Hong Kong to have such dedicated people working in our hospitals.
Hongkongers should visit the memorials of and give thanks to those who died during Sars – and thank those who continue working through the current crisis. Opinions remain divided over the medical workers’ strike in support of closing the border with China in February. Let’s close a chapter on that page of our history and look at the record of the brave nurses, doctors, lab technicians, cleaners and others who just keep showing up at their jobs. Our lives depend on them.
Mark L. Clifford is the executive director of the Asia Business Council and the author of Troubled Tiger: Businessmen, Bureaucrats and Generals in South Korea
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Slide 1 of 13: WUHAN, CHINA – JANUARY 22: (CHINA OUT) Security personnel check the temperature of passengers in the Wharf at the Yangtze River on January 22, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. A new infectious coronavirus known as “2019-nCoV” was discovered in Wuhan as the number of cases rose to over 400 in mainland China. Health officials stepped up efforts to contain the spread of the pneumonia-like disease which medicals experts confirmed can be passed from human to human. The death toll has reached 17 people as the Wuhan government issued regulations today that residents must wear masks in public places. Cases have been reported in other countries including the United States, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. (Photo by Getty Images)
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A new SARS-like coronavirus, named 2019-nCoV, originated in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and has since claimed several lives and spread to a number of countries around the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the health agency of the United Nations (U.N.), “Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).” The nCoV is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. As nations struggle to contain the spread of the virus, the WHO declared the outbreak a global health emergency, and has issued an advisory recommending standard precautionary measures that people can take to reduce the transmission of a range of illnesses. Click through to take a look.
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