Rethinking Infection and History
Why have some Asian countries led the world in their response to Covid-19?
Covid-19 left many Western countries reeling while Asian countries such as South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and Singapore have become models which others have sought to emulate. But the responses of other Asian countries such as India and Indonesia have been relatively chaotic. At the epicentre of the pandemic, China’s response remains contested and controversial. This variation suggests that it would be far too simplistic to ascribe success to authoritarian governance, ‘Asian collectivism’ or even recent experience with disease. It is therefore important to drill down into the history of some of these countries to find plausible explanations for the success of some Asian states in order to build more robust systems in other countries.
How have different societies balanced concerns about individual liberty/privacy against the public good?
Governments have varied enormously in the extent to which they have sought to intervene in the lives of their citizens to control infectious disease and that has been illustrated dramatically by Covid-19. Some governments moved early and vigorously to implement a system of testing and contract tracing, for example, and in some cases (e.g. South Korea), this was embraced enthusiastically by most of the population. By contrast, other countries, particularly Western nations, have struggled to implement contract tracing due to privacy rules. There has also been a large amount of resistance to surveillance in all forms. If Western countries are to meet the challenge of infectious disease they may need to move beyond the usual terms of ethical and political debate (privacy/liberty v. collective good) to consider the freedoms (e.g. of movement) that are enabled by infringements of privacy. History can contribute to a reformulation of these debates by indicating how a consensus has evolved around such issues in the past.
Why have some societies been able to withstand the strains of the pandemic better than others?
Epidemics always place considerable strain on the populations they affect but only rarely result in severe social disorder. In the present pandemic, tensions have risen in many countries, including some that have been relatively successful in dealing with the epidemic. This cannot be ascribed simply to social deprivation, although that is certainly an important factor. Other factors – including policing and public health messaging – appear to be vitally important. But more international data and analysis is needed to determine how epidemics, governance, inequality and policing interact to either reduce/increase the likelihood of unrest. Knowing the historical context is vital to interpreting this data and provides clues as how best to reduce tension during the strains of an epidemic crisis.
What can we learn from previous epidemiological upheavals about evolving international mechanisms to cope with infectious disease?
The world is in a similar position to the late nineteenth century, when the disruption caused by the Third Plague Pandemic provided an incentive for countries to agree on international conventions governing disease control. Then, as now, such a settlement raises ethical issues. For example, how should the international community deal with states that refuse to comply with their responsibilities? If a state is unable to comply, when and under what conditions is intervention by other states justified to prevent the further spread of disease? Or, to put it another way, what responsibilities ought other countries to have towards countries that are unable to cope with disease outbreaks? We need to learn from historical examples to help reframe ethical and political debates and find a new ground for collective international action in relation to epidemic disease.