Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar By: Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar
Doctoral Student, Political Sciences and International Studies
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16 Apr 2020 : No, "Asian Values" couldn't help us getting rid of COVID-19

We are often told that "Asian Values" have helped to contain (or at least slow down) the spread of Coronavirus.

Some people argue that the success of Japan, South Korea, China, and countries with strong "Asian Values" have been credited to the way the state and community handled the virus through cultural perception. Some see it in Chinese socialism with its draconian lockdown measures to tackle the virus. Some others highlight South Korean trust to the government in society, combined with massive and agressive testing. Also, other people refer to the success in Singapore, who put a massive contact tracing under huge country-wide (it's actually a city-state) surveillance system.

These countries are thought to share a similar characteristic in their handling over COVID-19: the primacy "Asian Values" as opposed to "Western Values" . There are some common denominators: strong and if necessary authoritarian state, community shaped by harmony rather than democracy, and the primacy of community interest over human rights. 

It's a classic argument. We could trace it back to the 1990s, when some Asian leaders opposed the global spread of human rights and democracy by declaring 'Asian Values'. 

But apparently while it works for some countries, it fails to bring progress in other 'Asian' countries who also attempt do similar things. 

Consider the weakest link of this "Asian" countries: Indonesia. When the news of Coronavirus comes to the country in early 2020, government officials responded it with jokes: ranging from a view that coronavirus doesn't come to the country because the permission for doing business is difficult, to a joke that we could handle coronavirus with 'wild horse milk'. But when the first case of COVID-19 was announced in March 2020, everyone began to panic. The number spiked rapidly, and the Transportation Minister was hospitalized due to Coronavirus.

After that panic and late response, is the 'Asian Values' helping the country to deal with the virus effectively? Apparently no.

The virus is now spreading to the whole country with all provinces have a number of cases. Some provinces - including my home province in South Kalimantan - has declared community transmission; meaning that even those who never go abroad or to Jakarta could be infected, especially the elderly and those with health vulnerability. But the way the government respond confuse all citizens. There is no country-wide lockdown; when some cities and districts declare their own lockdown, it was rebuked by the central government. 

In early April, large-scale physical distancing is introduced, but only in some urban area. Of course the priority is given to Jakarta, the capital. Some regions are indeed applying to have a similar large-scale physical distancing measures, such as the city of Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan province, but was rejected due to their low infection cases (among other reasons).

Even we are confused with the official data given by the government everyday. There are speculations though that the real number of cases is more than the official data.

Such a depressing fact.

But we are now faced with more risk of larger community transmission with the ritual of 'homecoming' (mudik) during the month of Ramadhan and 'Ied-al-fithri, the holy month for Muslim. During Ramadhan, many people are usually going to the mosque and attend religious sermon, and before 'Ied, everyone (including myself if I were in the country) coming back to their village to gather with big families. It's not only a religious ritual - there is also a cultural element of it, something that the government seem to rely upon. 

These rituals are not banned by the government - they only discourage people not to get back to their hometown for Ramadhan and 'Ied, thus leaving scientists puzzled and worried  because it could initiate another waves of infection.

Community responses began to emerge in the last couple of weeks. Muhammadiyah and NU, the two biggest Muslim organizations, have set up their coronavirus response team and mobilizes their resources to help with aids. But of course it's not enough - none of them are prepared to face contagious disease (none of us all over the world, to be fair) and the power to effectively deal with the virus lies to the government and medical staffs in the frontline. 

So, is the so-called "Asian Values" work to contain the coronavirus? I doubt it. It has nothing to do with the so-called values. South Korea and Singapore not only has a strong communal values, but they are heavily industrialised, have a huge surveillance system and strong leadership - followed by trust from the citizen - help to contain the virus quickly. China? The CCP has everything they need (I mean, the authority) to impose strict measure to their citizens. But most importantly they have sufficient resources to deal with the pandemic until the curve is flattened. 

And also these countries were experienced with previous disease outbreak: the SARS.

But imagine what happen with countries with deindustralisation, weak state power due neoliberal economic policies imposed to them since decades ago, detachment from science, or obsession with military or security power without having any knowledge of what kind of 'threat' we are now facing. Asian Values isn't necessarily able to help them.  

Perhaps what could help us to get rid of the Coronavirus is not, I believe, something to do with "Asian Values". Forget it. Just begin to think about what kind of risk mitigation system that we need in the future, how the welfare system might be constructed, what industries need to be mobilised, and (most importantly) how to build trust and effective leadership. 

Those popular leaders, no matter how good their images in front of their people, are doomed to fail in the future outbreak. But strong welfare regime, responsive and effective leadership, and trust from the people to follow policies backed by evidences and sciences, will fare better in fighting the virus. No matter what "values" they have in the country.

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