Will the virus shake up Asia in more ways than one?


Gainers and losers are emerging in the fight against the pandemic

What the hell is going on? If we look eastward, we see Vietnam under one-party (communist) rule. Thailand can be seen as an on-off semi-military democracy. Next door Myanmar can be described as a very weak or “guided” democracy where the army really calls the shots.

To the immediate west, we have a recognizably democratic West Bengal. At the moment, Vietnam is showing how it should be done. Thailand seems to be following, but well behind. Kolkota hit the ground early with programs of food distribution, but is lagging behind on testing. The situation in Myanmar is opaque given they have performed very little testing.

Which also sounds a bit like Bangladesh.

And thinking digitally, of course, the most successful so far has been South Korea. No, it is not “authoritarian.” It is a fully democratic state, just having conducted general elections last week in the midst of the pandemic. Masked voters in their millions cast their ballots. The left-leaning government won handsomely.

South Korea did not shut down the economy. There was no major lockdown. Instead, it used cutting-edge technologies in a disciplined, coordinated manner to identify, trace, and isolate victims and potential contacts. It went ballistic with nationwide testing.

Unsurprisingly it nipped Covid-19 in the bud. Given it is a rich, developed state of 55 million people, it cannot be used as a yardstick in the only slightly digital Bengali Delta.

In Asia, numerically, it is the nominally communist states, 1,500 million strong, who are leading the fightback. It feels like the days of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. The first man in space while America looks on.

The mechanics of success

An unofficial consensus seems to have emerged that for smaller territorial states such as Bangladesh and West Bengal, the role models should be Kerala and Vietnam. One democratic electorally; the other monolithic, with a different take on “democracy.”

Either way, both have Communist Party traditions. Difficult to swallow for some here. As for the more than a billion-strong, money-can-buy democracy that is India, it can only be measured against China. Does the word “embarrassing” come even close?

To us mere mortals, the key components seem to be social mobilization. Trust in the competence of governments, verified by visible actions. A clear coherent strategy communicated to the people. Speed and organization. Top to bottom.

On the ground the formula seems to have been: Targeted testing. Contact tracing. Providing cooked meals daily to quarantined areas. Regular medical visits. Kitting out medics with personal protective equipment (PPE). Producing and distributing masks to the population. Enforcing a Lockdown that is not dumb, but smart.

As someone said: “Lock-down without testing is like pointing a gun, without any bullets.”

Vulnerability need not mean defeat

The Wuhan of Europe is Northern Italy. Yet, next door, Austria has just reopened given its success in combatting the virus. Vietnam and South Korea are neighbours of China. Yet, they are both becoming the poster boys of Asia, blazing a path to follow for others in South and Southeast Asia.

Kerala is one of the most vulnerable states in India given its high percentage of citizens working and returning from abroad as well as being a major tourist destination. Yet, it is putting the northern heartlands of Hindutva to shame.

But what is going to end this pandemic permanently? Assuming we do not resign ourselves to passively accepting regular second, third, and more waves. Nor making a cold-blooded calculation of “acceptable deaths” — the unspoken presumption being that the poor will bear the brunt of the casualties. Social cleansing at its most cruel.

Microsoft or Linux?

The silver bullet to slay the Covid-19 monster is supposedly a miracle vaccine. In past crises, there was the Manhattan Project to develop the Atomic Bomb before Nazi Germany. In the 60s, in the midst of the expensive war in Vietnam, the US government mobilized and led the project to put a “Man on the Moon” before the USSR.

These successes were emphatically NOT private sector led initiatives.

In 2020, after four decades of privatizing neo-liberal globalization, it is an IT billionaire who is being offered up to us as a Messiah. At what price? If it were Linux, the forthcoming vaccine would be free. Open source. But the history of the Microsoft model is about creating monopolies and charging the Earth. You pay now or you pay later. But you pay.

And think of all those security patches. Beyond the front man Bill, Big Pharma in the West isn’t currently searching for the elixir for free. Like the bomb, labs all across the world are racing for the cure, including in Asia.

Here’s a thought for anyone listening in Beijing.

If China and East Asia could come up with a vaccine by Christmas 2021, the best return on its money would be … to offer the vaccine for free to the countries of the Global South. The ultimate Marshall Plan.

That would be the greatest peace weapon in the Cold War 2.0 confrontation that we are currently in. Soft Power Nirvana. The End of Coca Cola. Let richer Europe and North America pay private Big Pharma Corporations if they wish.

The Global South should be fed up by now of always paying up. For climate change for which it is not primarily responsible. It should be fed up for paying for debt when the largest multinationals get off scott-free, manipulating tax havens, supply chain transfer-pricing and accessing multi-trillions of dollars almost free and unlimited credit from Western Central Banks. The Global South should not have to pay one centimo for defending its people for a vaccine.

Even if there were no Christmas present and no free vaccine, the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative has broadened from cement and concrete to include a Health Silk Road. China is already generously supplying the world with masks and medical supplies. Meanwhile, America steals masks bound for Germany. Piracy and Francis Drake are back.

In West Asia, Sunni Saudis scream at a “Shia virus.” In South Asia, Hindutva Fascism sees a Muslim virus. East Asia keeps calm. It carries on.


Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst.