Sun & Star Webinar: The East Asian COVID-19 Paradox

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the globe since its inception in 2019, and with it we have seen a variety of governmental responses. Nearly two years since the start of the pandemic, East Asia has emerged as the best-performing region in terms of economic recovery after the initial shock and slowdown, number of cases/deaths, and even deepening international cooperation. Many questions surrounding COVID-19 remain, including why it affected the world so badly relative to past pandemics and why East Asian countries combatted COVID-19 so effectively. Dr. Yves Tiberghien discussed these questions based on his recently published book The East Asian COVID-19 Paradox.

Tiberghien began his presentation by showing the numbers of both economic growth (or decline) as well as statistics on the case and death count for a variety of countries, with an emphasis on the contrast between East Asia and other parts of the world. Generally, countries with lower death counts had higher economic growth. However, the entire world had a sluggish response to the threat of a pandemic, mostly due to the breakdown in Sino-American relations prior to the pandemic. Tiberghien stated that cooperation between the world’s two greatest powers was vital to a strong response, and we can see the fallout from that breakdown in the global spread and tenacity of the virus today. In addition to worsening relations between China and the United States, due to the U.S. withdrawal from its leadership position in world governance, international institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Group of Seven (G7), and the Group of Twenty (G20) all failed to properly respond to the threat or coordinate within themselves to enact meaningful policy.

Paradoxically, countries ranked highest on the Global Health Security Index like the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, and Sweden were underperformers while countries ranked lower (Mongolia, Vietnam, Singapore, and New Zealand) were overperformers relative to their rank. These overperformers or even ‘super achievers’ were concentrated in East Asia and Oceania, which was the best performing region in the world. Tiberghien explained his argument as to why. East Asia has lower cases and death numbers due to two factors: institutional variables and overall social cohesion. East Asian countries had strong government institutions including centralized government task forces; health scientists in key government positions; effective quarantine, isolation measures, and rapid border controls; effective tests and testing procedures; universal masking; contract tracing apps; and effective communication between leaders and citizens. In addition, the strong social cohesion in these countries contributed to a lack of polarization around COVID-19 measures and ensured almost universal cooperation with COVID-19 safety protocols.

As COVID is still actively affecting all our lives, Tiberghien’s lecture prompted several questions from participants on what governments could do better the next time a pandemic arose. Tiberghien recommended a worldwide strengthening of both international institutions like the WHO as well as national health organizations, such as the pandemic task force President Donald Trump disbanded less than a year before COVID-19 hit.

The discussion surrounding COVID-19 will most likely continue for decades to come so governments hopefully learn from both mistakes and sound practices. As Tiberghien noted, COVID-19 can serve as a warning for countries to avoid the tragedy of history and rebuild a global institutional order.

Watch the entire event below:


To learn more about SMU Tower Center events, go here.

This post was written by Keely McNeme ’23. She is triple majoring in Political Science, Corporate Communication, and Public Affairs with a concentration in Political Communication, and International Studies with a focus on Asia and a minor in History. She also does research alongside Professor Takeuchi and is very involved in the SMU Libraries, where she participates in the Library Student Advisory Board and works in DeGoyler Library of Special Collections.