23rd Apr 2021


'Corona Orientalism': nothing to learn from the East?

  • It is 'Orientalist' to believe that Europe cannot learn from Asia - where some countries have tackled the coronavirus efficiently (Photo: Wikipedia)

The 14th century Renaissance poet Petrarch detested modern medicine. The reason? It was introduced in Europe by the Arabs.

Petrarch refused to listen to the advice of "modern" physicians because "nothing good can come from those Arabs."

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He wrote this at the time of the bubonic plague that killed 30 percent of the European population. The Arab idea of ​​quarantine was only applied to a limited extent.

Unfortunately for Petrarch, one of the plague's victims was his own son.

In today's corona times, we hear echoes of Petrarch's words. We read everywhere about "lessons from Italy" but rarely if ever about "lessons from South Korea".

However, the curve of South Korea, a neighbouring country of China, is spectacular.

South Korea, a country with 51 million citizens, was able to limit the number of cases to 10,000, while Italy, with 60 million inhabitants, has hit 180,000 infection cases, and is only now hoping for improvement.

The reason why South Korea has been able to curb the pandemic quickly is because they started testing quickly and massively. Any South Korean could get tested in car parks, a kind of 'drive-in' test, after which they were told whether they should go to hospital, quarantine, or home if healthy.

In addition, sanitisers were made available everywhere in public places, while everyone was urged to wear mouth masks.

It is true, of course, that some of the measures are seen by many as a serious invasion of privacy. The government developed apps that could show people how far they were from infected fellow citizens. That can only work if the infected people have it marked on their phone.

Also, in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus may have arisen, people could only enter shops (when the lockdown was lifted), after they had shown on their phone that they were not (no longer) infected.

One can be for or against these apps or other drastic measures taken in some Asian countries.

But it cannot be denied that a country like South Korea, plus also some other Asian states, so far have successfully tackled the corona crisis. Yet these countries and their success stories hardly get any credit in talk shows or articles on the current pandemic.

Moreover, the arguments are quite hallucinatory: 'Asians live in dictatorships, are naturally more obedient to the government and don't care about freedom and privacy'.

All this, of course, in contrast to democratic and freedom-loving Europe. The fact that South Korea is not a dictatorship but a democracy is just a detail.

American-Palestinian intellectual Edward Said called this attitude "Orientalism" in his eponymous 1978 book. Said described how Europeans look down on 'the East' as undeveloped people, unable to govern or represent themselves and thus needing European civilisation in order to progress.

Orientalism is a combination of a European feeling of superiority, born from 19th century European hegemony, with a poignant lack of actual interest in what "the Orientals" have to say. His thesis sparked much controversy, and led to the creation of a new scientific research field, Post-Colonial Studies, with the aim of adjusting to the Orientalist discourse.

But that turns out to be a difficult task.

Moreover, it looks like Orientalism has mutated in recent months to Corona Orientalism.

Western 'complacency'?

Former Singapore ambassador to the UN, Kishore Mahbubane, put rubbed salt into the wound in some recent interviews. He called the West complacent and said this was the cause of the late European response to the pandemic.

Mahbubane said it is still inconceivable for many Europeans that there could be something to be learned from some east Asian countries. As an example, he cited the financial crisis of 2008-2009. In the 1990s, a similar crisis hit Asia, which learned lessons from it. But Europe simply ignored those lessons in its response to its own crisis.

And we are not even talking about education, where Asian countries lead the rankings, in mathematics, science and even in reading skills.

In fairness, we have to say that in the past few days articles have started to appear in a number of Western newspapers on what lessons we can draw from Asia regarding the coronavirus.

This reporting is very important, even for virologists.

In an online media debate organised by the World Economic Forum a virologist said last week he gets a lot of information from the media about successes and failures of other countries.

But unfortunately, very little is written about the second wave in Japan, or the third wave in Taiwan, and how it was handled.

As editor-in-chief of EUobserver, I must admit that we too are underreporting this. Because there is too little interest in news from the East due to 'Corona Orientalism', we simply write too little about it and we make it more difficult for the medical and political world to make the right decisions.

In short, this is not an indictment of certain experts, politicians or journalists, let alone a criticism of individuals.

Rather, it is a call for Europeans to abandon our deep-seated and simply wrong sense of superiority over the East.

Today (like yesterday) there are lessons to be learned about how a number of Eastern countries are tackling this corona crisis. We also have to drop our bipolar world view à la Petrarch; the idea of ​​the free, rational West against the authoritarian, emotional East that focuses mainly on wisdom rather than science.

This is a global pandemic that we will only be able to stop if we look, think and find solutions globally.


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