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The biggest blunder in the coronavirus crisis: nativism

By Rainer Zitelmann, TES Contributor


In business administration, “best practice” refers to the method of learning from other businesses and industries and adopting exemplary methods, practices or procedures. Applied to the coronavirus pandemic, this would mean: let’s look around the world and see where the fight against the virus is most effective – and learn from it.


In many countries across Asia, there have been far fewer infections, hospitalizations and deaths than there have been in Europe or the United States. A few days ago, I spoke with a professor in Vietnam who told me that he had been at a reception with 1,000 participants over the weekend, that the economy was running as usual, and that there was at most a handful of infections in rural regions. And with a GDP growth of 2.8 percent, Vietnam will be among the fastest growing economies in a Covid-19-ravaged this year, the World Bank says.


But as soon as anyone highlights how successful many Asian countries have been at containing the virus, reflexive “counter-arguments” are raised to explain why we in the West cannot learn anything from Asia.


These arguments include:


  • “China and Vietnam are dictatorships and we do not want to see such restrictions on our freedoms here.”


  • “Because Taiwan is an island, there’s no way we can copy what they have done.”


  • “People in Asia have a completely different mentality.”


  • “Look at South Korea, their case numbers are increasing again.”


Yes, Taiwan is an island, but so is Great Britain, where the virus has had a particularly devastating impact. Dictatorships? South Korea, Taiwan and Japan are by no means dictatorships, they are all democratic countries. Yes, it’s true, the number of infections in South Korea has also been rising again in recent weeks, but any European country or state in the U.S. would be pleased to have the number of infections we are currently seeing in South Korea.


Of course, some of the arguments that highlight the differences between Asia on the one hand and Europe and the United States on the other are correct. But “learning” does not mean blindly copying what others are doing. As Confucius so wisely stated: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”


Of course, the argument about restricting freedoms needs to be taken seriously. But in the midst of a pandemic, there is, unfortunately, no alternative to imposing restrictions on freedom. The question is: which restrictions are people most likely to accept? In Germany, for example, it has been decided that data protection and open borders are more important than protecting human life and the economy. But what about the freedom of all those self-employed people and entrepreneurs who are driven into insolvency? What about the freedom of workers who lose their jobs? What about the freedom of the thousands who are dying every day in Europe and the United States? Are these freedoms really less important than data privacy and unrestricted travel? Thought experiment: If Covid-19 were as lethal as, say, Ebola, how would we answer these questions, how would we prioritize?


I think people are making light of the situation. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Europe was unable or unwilling to secure its external borders. And anyone who has been to Asia knows that many Asian countries are simply more modern and, for example, far more digitally advanced than Europe or the United States. Americans and Europeans should take the coronavirus crisis as a wake-up call, because it clearly exposes deficits. Neither arrogance nor our longstanding know-it-all attitude toward Asia are of any use to us in this crisis. For once, we should focus on what we can learn from them.



Rainer Zitelmann is a historian and sociologist and author of the recent book The Rich in Public Opinion, published by Cato Institute