Prof. Yves Tiberghien examines why East Asian countries handled COVID better in his new book

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the first global public health emergency since 1918, the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the greatest geopolitical tensions in decades. Global governance mechanisms failed. Yet, East Asian countries (with caveats) managed to control COVID-19 better than most other countries and to increase their cooperation toward economic integration, despite their position on the security frontline. What explains this East Asian COVID paradox in a region devoid of strong regional institutions?

In his new book, UBC Political Science Professor Yves Tiberghien argues that high levels of institutional preparation, social cohesion, and global strategic reinforcement in a context of situational convergence explain the results. It relies on high-level interviews and case studies across the region.

You can read the book for free at the link below until August 30, 2021.

We spoke to Prof. Tiberghien about what it was like researching and writing about COVID-19 during the pandemic. Read the interview below.

What is the East Asian Paradox? Can you tell us about which countries you focused on exemplified the East Asian Paradox (and which were caveats)?

There are actually two East Asian COVID-19 paradoxes. First, most of East Asia and Oceania aced the battle with COVID-19 in 2020 across regime types and across great cultural differences. After the first year of the pandemic, total deaths per million reached 1400 in the US, 1650 in the UK, 550 in Canada, and 300 for the world average  (Source: Oxford, Our World in Data, as of February 6, 2021). By contrast, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Mongolia had experienced less than 1 death per million by that date. China, Singapore, and New Zealand were below 5 (with some likely undercounting in China’s case). Korea stood at 29, Japan at 50. The worst affected were Indonesia (115) and Philippines (101), still way below world average.
The caveats in the effective East Asian response in the first year related to Indonesia and the Philippines, where the institutional response was much more limited and where deaths and cases were also undercounted. By the summer of 2021, Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar experienced worsening pandemics due to the Delta variant and political crises. Additionally, Japan was able to rely on good social practices (high levels of mask-wearing and social distancing) and the best health care system in Asia, but the government response was weaker and less organized than in other neighbouring countries.
The second East Asian COVID-19 paradox is the ability of East Asia and Oceania to come together in the largest free trade agreement on the planet, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November 2020, right in the midst of a trend of pandemic-driven fragmentation of global governance and anti-globalization feelings in advanced countries. Surprisingly, East Asian soft institutionalization proved resilient during the great COVID-19 pandemic crisis.

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What is your argument about global governance during COVID-19?

The book has a chapter evaluating the performance of global governance during 2020 across several dimensions: health, economy and trade, and security. Overall, the results show a very poor performance of global institutions (unlike to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis), due to US unilateralism, Chinese assertiveness, and US-China tensions. However, there was interesting progress from regional institutions (East Asia, Africa, and the EU), as well as creative work by the bureaucracies of global institutions, such as the IMF, the World Bank, the WHO, the Asian Development Bank, and the AIIB.

What was your experience of writing this book during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It is clearly different from normal research and academic writing. One downside was the lack of on the ground interviews during COVID and of intense human interactions during conferences, workshops or meetings to hone ideas and get useful feedback.  On the other hand, the overnight switch of all academic activities to Zoom made it possible to attend high-level events with decision-makers and scholars all over the world, including Harvard University, Stanford University, Washington think tanks, East Asian universities and think tanks, European universities and think tanks, and global conferences. This gave me access to top level primary data almost instantly with alternative views across continents. COVID also made it possible to work more intensely with students at UBC, but also at partner universities such as Sciences Po and Tokyo University. At UBC, in the Spring 2020, I was able to launch a crowd-sourcing experiment across my three classes (Japanese Politics, Chinese Politics, Taiwanese politics) and to involve a couple hundred students in my COVID project.

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Dr. Yves Tiberghien

What kind of institutional preparations, social cohesion, and global strategic reinforcement helped East Asian countries to manage COVID-19 better than other countries?

The key factor was good institutional preparation prior to the pandemic and effective and rapid triggering of these institutions in January 2020. By mobilizing rapidly, they kept cases and deaths much lower than in the US, Europe, and South America. The response included the rapid activation of coordinating pandemic headquarters, the rapid production of PPEs and tests, border controls, quarantine measures and active contact-tracing.” In places like Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, or Vietnam, the institutions had taken warnings about future pandemics seriously and they had passed laws that codified the setup of whole-of-government pandemic headquarters with vast authority, the production of personal protection equipment (PPEs) and tests, and the collection of contact-tracing information.
These measures were supported by high levels of social cohesion. The key feature was horizontal trust within society, which is shown to be highest in East Asia, Oceania, and Nordic countries, as well as India. Based on social trust, people are willing to accept measures such as mask-wearing, contact-tracing, and vaccination in the name of collective social well-being and for their families and neighbours. In turn, social fragmentation and polarization weaken such measures.
Finally, the key reason why East Asian (and Oceanian) countries increased regional integration during the pandemic, despite increasing security risks around China was the logic of global strategic reinforcement: facing increasing risks and volatility, they chose to reinforce trade and economic linkages, since these were the engines of success in the past. Deepening the normal playbook was a sort of flight to safety and an effort to contain global volatility.

Who did you speak to and which case studies from across the region were the most informative for you?

Just prior to the pandemic, I had very useful interviews in Japan and Europe during my last field trips. In Japan, high level interviews focused on RCEP and East Asian dynamics.  During the pandemic, I joined small group events with key epidemiologists, as well as government officials, think tankers and stakeholders covering health measures, economic measures, and global governance measures. These conversations provided key insights on the pandemic side and global economic events in real time. I was able to pursue a few online interviews with selected top policy-makers in various countries to get a sense of choices being made as they unfolded. In general, I sought to pursue comparative case studies and process-tracing methodology around key decision points by piecing together the preferences and decisions of key actors involved.

Was there anything that surprised you while conducting your research?

The most surprising fact was the sheer scale, velocity, and impact of world events unfolding in real time. Top policy-makers were saying that forces had been unleashed that they had never encountered in their life time and that traditional models could not apply any more. It was the first time in human history that one third of the global economy was entirely and synchronously stopped within one single week. Nobody had seen this before. In late March 2020, the scale and speed of change was such that top leaders said that nothing could be known about the next month, the next week, even the next day. COVID-19 was a quadruple shock at once: a global health crisis, a global economic and social crisis, a political crisis in many countries, and a global governance crisis. And because of the crisis of US decision-making and US China tensions at the top, the usual global coping mechanisms stopped functioning.

Has the emergence of the Delta variant (or other variants) changed or challenged what your research found?

Yes. The data in my book covers COVID until February 2021 and some economic data until April 2021, when final revisions were closed. Since April, several variants, and especially the Delta variant, have turned trends on their hands. Suddenly, in May-June, the best run case, Taiwan, experienced 15,000 cases until they could contain the wave. Suddenly, Malaysia went from a competent COVID manager to a runaway case. The Prime Minister fell last week mostly due to incompetence in managing COVID. Myanmar after the military Coup of February 1, 2021, has seen an explosion of unrest and of COVID cases. Thailand lost control after reopening to tourism and in the context of growing political unrest.  Overall, the Asian cases continue to show results that are much better than the world average, but COVID had shown that even the best-laid plans can be wrecked by the length of a pandemic, new variants, and weakness in developing or rolling out vaccines, as shown in most East Asian cases.