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South Korean Response to COVID-19 and Epidemic Orientalism in Germany

by Eun-Jeung Lee

№ 29/2021 from Mar 30, 2021

Eun-Jeung Lee

Marco Verch Professional Photographer South Korea to buy millions of coronavirus vaccine doses

Marco Verch Professional Photographer South Korea to buy millions of coronavirus vaccine doses
Image Credit: Marco Verch Professional Photographer (Flickr)

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our lives in many ways and we do not really know when it will end. Many scholars argue that the post-Corona society will be a fundamentally different one. I wonder whether this will hold true. To me, it seems that European countries – instead of getting ready for some principal changes – are rather returning to old, deeply-rooted patterns of behaviour.

South Korea was quite successful in preventing the spread of COVID-19 at an early stage. It did so without ordering stringent restrictions for the public and the economy as it was done in China, Europe, and the United States. South Korea managed to successfully contain the spread of COVID-19 because of a coherent set of measures rapidly applied by the government.

The awareness of the successfully implemented strategies by the governments in East Asia – in particular in South Korea – is growing in Germany. Articles focussing on “lessons from Asia” and “lesson from Korea” have become frequent.

However, there is a strange parallel to the mid-1990s, when the so-called Four Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) had demonstrated their ability to dynamically develop their economies. It became customary to explain these successes by the alleged Asian values – among them discipline, obeisance, and collectivism. The Asian values were presented as undermining Western values such as individualism, freedom, and democracy.

Nowadays, when Western media look and try to explain the COVID-19 strategies in East Asia, they again recur to Asian values. The achievements of those countries are attributed to their supposedly authoritarian and collectivist traditions and cultures. Actually, such perceptions became prevalent already 300 years ago, at the time when Europeans started to become aware of East Asia. This sort of orientalism is nowadays gaining new strengths in the political discourses in the West. As can be easily recognised, the epidemic threat too is seen through orientalistic eyes. Therefore, one gets the impression that “epidemic orientalism” has become an important ingredient in German and other Western discourses, too.

In contrast to these discourses, an unprejudiced view on the COVID-19 measures taken by the South Korean government, for example, reveals that its actions were quite down to earth, simply following the recommendations elaborated in WHO manuals. After it had been surprised by Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) epidemic, Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC)[i] thoroughly revised their set of measures to be taken in another epidemic emergency. The necessary legal basis was prepared, while the role of public health institutions was strengthened and health workers were trained to cope with various kinds of emergencies. All this was done based on the recommendations of and in cooperation with the WHO.

Even though the KCDC made it clear almost daily that it basically was following WHO guidelines, surprisingly, German media, politicians, and intellectuals preferred to explain the Korean success story in terms of its Confucian culture. Not only that, this orientalistic argument was then turned around and used to justify that Western countries, because of their supposed respect for personal freedom and privacy, could not implement COVID-19 strategies as effectively as Korea or other East and Southeast Asian countries. The argument runs that Korea, only because its culture and politics allow freedom and privacy to be violated, was able to overcome the Corona epidemic successfully. Thus, the recognition of this achievement became synonymous with a degradation of its traditions and political culture – and ex negativo confirmed the deep-rooted Western sense of superiority.

As we can see, Europeans still otherize non-European societies within the limits of their perception of themselves. As Habermas said, now that we are so well aware that we do not know anything about the Coronavirus, the fear of what we do not know is being transposed onto an outsider in Asia. As it is, the violence latent in the otherization at times takes the form of physical violence against people perceived as East Asians. I myself, being East Asian, cannot feel amused about a satirical comment in Der Spiegel that says, talking about the Coronavirus outbreak in China in early February 2020, “a bit of racism is allowed”.

The way Europe is currently responding to the COVID-19 crisis is essentially no different from reactions we have known since pre-modern times. During the Black Death, the wrath of the people was directed against the Jewish minorities, which were seen as the origin of that epidemy. At present, we can observe that humanitarianism and cosmopolitanism are overshadowed by a competition between countries to secure the Coronavirus vaccine. The present epidemic seems to have given a push to nationalistic claims and competitive nationalism. Will that be the new normal?

Prof. Eun-Jeung Lee, a University Professor with a research focus intercultural history of political ideas and political culture, is the Director of Institute of Korean Studies  at the Freie Universität Berlin; the Director of the Graduate School of East Asian Studies in Berlin. She is a Member of Academy of  Science Berlin-Brandenburg  as well as Academia Europea. Lee  is a Member of German-Korean Advisory Council for Unification. She was Fellow of Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (1994-1995), and Japan Foundation (2001-2002). The South Korean Government bestowed 2019 Prof. Lee with the Order of Civil Merit (Moran Medal) for her Work in the Field of Peace and Unification.


[i] KCDC was restructured into an expanded Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) on 12th September 2020.