Will pandemic end Asia’s fascination with the West?

Asia’s fortune hunters, career-focused students and professionals are set to abandon their dreams of life in the developed cities of the Western world as Europe and the United States struggle to ward off the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

Many admit that Asia’s honeymoon with the West has come to an end as Asian nations are predicted to recover faster than elsewhere in the post-coronavirus world.

The worst-hit countries in Europe, such as the UK, Italy France and Spain, along with the US, have failed their people as death tolls from the coronavirus have surged to tens of thousands.

Their superior healthcare systems and social welfare built on high-tech technology have suffered an irreparable beating while humble Asia has withstood the crisis with its head held high.

Asian students who used to flock to temples of knowledge in the West have started to believe that Asia has arrived after it weathered the storm better than the wealthy West.

Look at the US, where the blame game is still on, while the UK could not even save its prime minister from falling victim to the pandemic.

Financial consultancy firms have already pressed the panic button on Western countries.

“It does make sense to tilt your portfolio towards China or towards Asia generally because the virus is moving from that region … to the West, where it is unfortunately not yet contained,” said Andrew Harmstone, a senior portfolio manager at Morgan Stanley, recently.

While central banks in the US and Europe are running out of tools to contain the economic fallout from the disease, many Asian economies learned a hard lesson from previous crises and successfully built strong sovereign balance sheets.

The Asian central banks have more room to use monetary policy to kickstart their economies.

Advantage Asia

Severe contagious outbreaks are not new to Asia. The new coronavirus has often been likened to the SARS epidemic in 2003, which greatly affected China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore and other Asian countries. They deployed all their energies to cushion their people and societies.

Governments in the region copied China’s response to the outbreak in Wuhan, where the virus was arrested after emerging there late last year.

Meanwhile, in the West, anger and despair have spilt over to the streets over governments’ failure to respond strongly when the situation was clear and called for a clear-cut medical and social strategy.

When the New Year started on a sad note, parts of East Asia were a scary place to be. The coronavirus was rapidly spreading across mainland China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan and beyond. Many foreign nationals began to flee the region.

Now that the table is turned on the West, Asia has emerged as one of the safest places in the world.

With the notable exception of Japan and Singapore, Asian governments have reported a steady decline in new cases and have eased lockdown measures. However, the situation in the West remains dire.

Too slow to act

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently admitted that steps to implement life-saving social distancing measures faced “a lot of pushback” in the early stages of the outbreak in the US.

The European Union’s chief scientist resigned over the slow implementation of preventive measures.

By February, many things about the new virus were widely known — its severity and ability to spread quickly and lethally – and yet countries in the West failed or refused, to act and a general sense of complacency prevailed.

In the US, a nationwide social distancing norm was implemented on March 16 even though the country’s first case was reported much earlier.

The UK too dragged its feet and lockdown and stay-at-home orders were put in place in late March, a gap of two months after the first case was reported.

Asian countries, however, acted swiftly. Despite not being a member of the World Health Organization, Taiwan nevertheless put in place a world-class response. Singapore also earned kudos for its response.

Superior healthcare

Most European countries have health systems that are better funded than their Asian counterparts. The US is the pioneer of modern medicine. The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK is considered the best in the world.

Citizens in these countries have access to better healthcare and enjoy a high standard of living and purchasing power due to increased government and private investments. Besides, government initiatives promote medical insurance.

Special incentives from government agencies in the form of grants and research and development funding encourage people to hit the path of innovation to make public health more efficient.

Emerging tech trends like 3-D printing, artificial intelligence and blockchain technology were first to hit the road in these countries. They added more sheen to well-established healthcare systems.

Fitness-savvy millennials and their health-conscious parents became the driving force to make healthcare systems in the West superior.

Before the coronavirus wreaked havoc, Asians were looking at the West with wonder. However, having managed to keep the coronavirus at bay, the trend has reversed in Asia’s favour.

Academic excellence

According to reports, the top study destinations for Asian students were the US, UK, Germany and Australia.

With over 370,000 students in the 2018-19 academic year, China sent the largest number of students to the US for 10 years in a row. Over the past decade, the number of Chinese students enrolled in American colleges has more than trebled.

India, second after China, has 250,000 students in the US. It is reported that there are 1.1 million foreign students in the country.

The COVID-19 outbreak will cause a huge shift in student intake.

In March, several US universities moved classes online and asked students to vacate campus housing. Classes over video conferencing apps such as Zoom have become the new normal.

In Australia, where the fall semester starts in late February or early March, more than 107,000 Chinese students — 56 per cent of the total Chinese student population — are still outside Australia and unable to return to resume classes.

“This is the worst possible time for Australian education providers because it comes at the very start of our academic year,” said Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia.

A new report predicts that more Asian students are likely to pursue higher education in Asian universities in the coming years.

Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and China will occupy the places once held high by the US, UK, Germany and Australia.

European social model

Poor Asians often admired the tight social welfare net in force in almost all Western nations. The catchphrase “European social model” promoted social justice and social cohesion.

The welfare state in Europe has resulted in thriving economies, livable and trustful societies and efficient polities that have grown in strength to face all sorts of demographic, economic, financial and political challenges.

Regardless of their differences, the social welfare models in all these Western countries were designed to protect people against the risks associated with unemployment, parental responsibilities, healthcare, old age, housing and social exclusion.

Now the greatest health crisis in a century has shifted the focus of the world from the West to the East.

  • Richard Fang First published in La-Croix. Republished with permission.
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