Reportage. Excluding China, the Asian continent has faced the epidemic with some virtuous successes and examples (few cases and deaths). But even democratic countries have distinguished themselves for reactionary crackdowns.

Authoritarian contagion? Not as much as you’d think

Asia is a large continent, and trying to make a general assessment of its response to the virus is almost impossible. However, some trends and particular good examples can be examined—and if we exclude China, a world unto itself, we can attempt a classification.

First, there are the countries on the border with China, its southern geographical “belt”: Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, direct neighbors but among the least-affected countries in the world. Then, there are the countries with large populations, from Indonesia to the highly populous nations of South Asia, with relatively “few cases.” Then, the rich countries, technologically advanced but not always praiseworthy at the social level (South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore). Finally, the areas where war reigns, more or less explicitly proclaimed, from Afghanistan to the endemic conflicts around Myanmar.

First, we must look at the “mystery of the (Chinese) belt.” Looking at the statistics table, it is striking that only five countries in Asia have zero recorded deaths. Excluding East Timor (24 cases, 0 deaths) and Turkmenistan (0 cases, 0 deaths), the others are Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, to which we can add Myanmar (only 6 deaths). These are the countries from the southern “belt” of China, on the periphery of the “Empire” and therefore the closest to the epicenter in Wuhan (Central Asia, further to the west, was also little affected, but is farther from the epicenter).

We are talking about approximately 200 million inhabitants in four countries that host significant Chinese communities and where there is extensive movement of Chinese and other workers to and from China. First of all, they all immediately closed their border with China: an economically painful but smart decision.

Then, they isolated entire villages from the very first case (Vietnam already started doing so in February) and set up quarantines in places like monasteries (Myanmar), knowing they had very frail healthcare infrastructures. The positive cases were immediately isolated in hospital, identified and published (without naming them) by age, sex and place of residence. In this way, one knew the places where one should not go, and locals could identify the patient and had to report to the authorities.

It is an oversimplification to say that these are authoritarian regimes or masked dictatorships (Cambodia was the only country that aroused suspicion regarding the numbers). If one can point to a particular factor, a cultural logic of village-level self-discipline seems to have been in effect, with healthcare being considered a collective good to be preserved.

In Myanmar, a “civil” checkpoint has been set up in every neighborhood where one can wash their hands. If you don’t have a mask on, people will make disapproving gestures. It is all a matter of discipline and self-discipline, in addition to the country’s previous experience with SARS. And there has also been more advice and help from China, interested in not spoiling relations with its first neighbors on the Silk Road.

“In the case of Vietnam,” Professor Pietro Masina of the Orientale University of Naples tells us, “the debate that took place within the Vietnam Studies Group, a group of academics and researchers, is interesting. Apart from some controversy about the authoritarian nature of the regime, the debate basically confirmed the fact that the country has not concealed its data. We had direct experience of this by following the case of a researcher who was ill as she came back to Vietnam from London. Moreover, with just 100 active cases, Vietnam had already quarantined up to 90,000 people.”

There is a 17,000-island lockdown in Indonesia, where the management of the virus was less well organized, with uncertain rules and quarrels between the central government and the provinces, as well as the governor of the capital.

A Reuters investigation in April claimed that the number of the dead was at least twice as high as the official one. “The virus has been taken lightly,” the writer Goenawan Mohamad tells us, “but after a clumsy start, President Jokowi has taken charge and there are plans to address the problem at the moment. But there are also 250 million people scattered over 17,000 islands: it is a decentralized country, with local governments elected by the people and an unreliable bureaucracy. The lockdown is ultimately a permeable one, and the state is not financially strong enough to counteract the damage to the economy, so people are becoming restless. So far, the government has avoided draconian methods, also because of a military and authoritarian past, but I do not think we will be getting any good news in the future. However, I don’t think Indonesia is getting closer to the situation in Brazil either.”

Faisol Reza, a member of the Indonesian parliament and a former activist who was taken prisoner by the army in the days of the fall of the Suharto dictatorship (1998), is willing to defend Jokowi: “He has three problems: the financial capacity of the government, the lack of trust from officials and the legal obstacles. Jokowi is confident about how to deal with the virus, but less so with regard to the economy. He has shared the burden of the central government with provincial and regional governments and implemented large-scale social distancing, but with the possibility for families to return to their villages. There is a problem with officials and ministers, who don’t dare make any decisions because of past experiences with legal troubles, and who have asked for guarantees so they can take action without any risk. As for the legal obstacles, they concern the regional autonomy law that limits the actions of the central government, a law that Jokowi wants to change.”

But then, the question becomes: does this hold true also for India or Pakistan, with large populations and conflicts between central and decentralized power?

Do high populations automatically mean more virus? Goenawan doesn’t think so: “Compared to India, where thousands of migrant workers have had to suffer from the block on movement, the Indonesians are in better conditions. There were no families forced to live under bridges or in cellars. Social support and food distribution for the newly-unemployed have worked relatively well so far.”

In India, as is well known, the virus has been a trigger for Islamophobia, in addition to making internal migrants pay a high price. But the numbers raise other questions. When adjusting the numbers per capita, all the large countries of South Asia—as well as Indonesia—have recorded few cases and few deaths, in a context of overpopulation: India with almost 1.5 billion inhabitants, Pakistan with over 200 million, Bangladesh with 160 million.

These countries have been accused of hiding the real data. One might look, for instance, at Bangladesh: “My hypothesis,” says David Lewis, professor at the London School of Economics and author of Bangladesh: Politics, Economy and Civil Society, among other works, “is that the numbers in Bangladesh are dramatically undercounted because of the weak healthcare system and very few tests.”

This theory is shared by his Bangladeshi colleague Abul Hossain of the Green University of Dhaka: “The low number of tests leaves us in the dark, and we think that the published data on deaths is half of the real number, because a large number of people who died from the virus are not counted by the statistics. Finally, we believe that there is a huge number of asymptomatic people, in a country where the health budget was only 0.9% of GDP last year.”

Then, there is the category of the “rich and ruthless.” Among the wealthy countries (including Tokyo, which has just come out of the state of emergency), the cases of South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore stand out in terms of the number of contagions, despite being at the forefront of technology, with good credentials as democracies, with widespread welfare and good hospitals.

They have distinguished themselves through the striking black holes in the social fabric. When Seoul saw a resurgence of contagion that began in May, with an outbreak in LGBTQ clubs, a racist reaction towards the “other” became widespread, accusing non-standard sexual practices of being a vehicle for the disease. Singapore and Malaysia have done the same—if not worse—with migrants.

The former country has locked migrants up in large dormitories where the outbreaks of COVID-19 have been recorded. Malaysia has put many migrants in prison and prosecuted the journalists who exposed the authoritarian turn against society’s weakest: the immigrant workforce that Kuala Lumpur, like Singapore, cannot do without, but which it has tried to sweep under the rug all the same.

Then, there are the places where the virus coexists with war. It remains to be seen, for instance, whether COVID-19 has helped the government in Kabul reach an internal agreement after months of stalemate and disputes over the election result, and whether the truce now stipulated between the Ghani executive and the Taliban is solely on account of the virus.

The epidemic certainly seems to have helped the various protagonists adopt a bit of healthy pragmatism: in a widespread crisis of support, nobody likes to lose even more because of a disease. But the UN call for a ceasefire in March, echoed by the Pope, went unheeded in other places: for instance, in India or in Thailand.

The call for a ceasefire was taken up only in part in the Philippines and Myanmar. In the latter, however, the ceasefire, agreed on May 10 in Yangoon, excluded the actual areas where fighting was taking place. Overall, it would not be wrong to say that COVID has pushed Asia towards an authoritarian turn. Hopefully, this trend will not achieve viral spread.

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