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South Korean Army Soldier assists a U.S. Army soldier in donning protective equipment before sanitizing a COVID-19 infected area during a joint disinfecting operation in Daegu, South Korea, March 13, 2020. (Image by (U.S. Army, Hayden Hallman)) DetailsDMCA
As the Raging Twenties unleash a radical reconfiguration of the planet, coronavirus (literally "crowned poison") has for all practical purposes served a poisoned chalice of fear and panic to myriad, mostly Western, latitudes.
Berlin-based, South Korean-born philosopher Byung-Chul Han has forcefully argued the victors are the "Asian states like Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore that have an authoritarian mentality which comes from their cultural tradition [of] Confucianism."
Han added: "People are less rebellious and more obedient than in Europe. They trust the state more. Daily life is much more organized. Above all, to confront the virus Asians are strongly committed to digital surveillance. The epidemics in Asia are fought not only by virologists and epidemiologists, but also by computer scientists and big data specialists."
That's a reductionist view and plenty of nuances should apply. Take South Korea, which is not "authoritarian." It's as democratic as top Western liberal powers. What we had in a nutshell was the civic-mindedness of the overwhelming majority of the population reacting to sound, competent government policies.
Seoul went for fast mobilization of scientific expertise; immediate massive testing; extensive contact tracing; and social distancing, as well. But, crucially, most of it voluntary, not imposed by the central power. Because these moves were organically integrated, South Korea did not need to restrict movement drastically or to close down airports.
Hong Kong's success is due in large part to a superb health care system. People in the front-line, with institutional memory of recent epidemics such as SARS, were willing to go on strike if serious measures were not adopted. Success was also due in large part to myriad professional links between Hong Kong's and Taiwan's healthcare and public health systems.
Barbarism with a Human Face
Then there's Big Data. Han argues that in neither China nor other East Asian nations is there enough critical analysis in relation to digital vigilance and Big Data. But that also has to do with culture, because East Asia is about collectivism, and individualism is not on the forefront.
Well, that's way more nuanced. Across the region, digital progress is pragmatically evaluated in terms of effectiveness. Wuhan deployed Big Data via thousands of investigative teams, searching for possibly infected individuals, choosing who had to be under observation and who had to be quarantined. Borrowing from Foucault, we can call it digital biopolitics.
Where Han is correct is when he says that the pandemic may redefine the concept of sovereignty: "The sovereign is the one who resorts to data. When Europe proclaims a state of alarm or closes borders, it's still chained to old models of sovereignty."
The response across the EU, including especially the European Commission in Brussels, has been appalling. Glaring evidence of powerlessness and lack of any serious preparations have appeared even though the EU had a head start.
The first instinct was to close borders; hoard whatever puny equipment was available; and, then, social Darwinist-style, it was every nation for itself, with battered Italy left totally to itself.
The severity of the crisis especially in Italy and Spain, with elders left to die to the "benefit" of the young, was due to a very specific EU political economy choice: the austerity diktat imposed across the eurozone. It's as if, in a macabre way, Italy and Spain are paying literally in blood to remain part of a currency, the euro, which they should never have adopted in the first place.
As for France, read here for a relatively decent summary of the disaster in the EU's second-largest economy.
Going forward, Slavoj Zizek gloomily predicts for the West "a new barbarism with a human face, ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy, but legitimized by expert opinions."
Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia (more...)