The West and the Rest in the Turbulent Times of the Coronavirus Pandemic

// Vasilios N. Makrides & Eleni Sotiriou – 13 June 2020

The unprecedented Coronavirus pandemic has seriously affected and still continues to affect states, companies and billions of people worldwide. It has triggered not only panic, but also a huge number of predictions, commentaries and reactions from all possible standpoints. It has also led to the loss of daily normality. Needless to say, such pandemics exhibit numerous dimensions beyond the narrow medical side including cultural ones that relate to the main topic of the present research group: “What is 'Western' about the West?”. Will this pandemic lead to a radical re-evaluation of humanity’s values, historically mostly shaped by the West? Will it signify a radical reform of the economic liberalism and the excessive individualism of Western provenance in our globalised era? No doubt, this epidemiological crisis has changed a lot, if not everything in the world, while its vicissitudes in the aftermath are highly feared, as they can hardly be accurately predicted.

For our purpose, first of all, we propose to look at the case of Greece, a country that exhibits various particularities. In fact, the way this country treated the pandemic was hailed worldwide, ranging from global and other media companies (CNN, Bloomberg, Forbes, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Time Magazine, Der Spiegel etc.) to internationally well-known public intellectuals, such as economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, political scientist Francis Fukuyama, and historians Yuval Noah Harari and Niall Ferguson. These positive reactions portrayed Greece’s strategy as highly effective and successful in controlling the spread of the virus and as a potential model for other Western countries or even in global terms; especially if one were to look at some hardest-hit-countries like the USA, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France. Even Belgium, a country with a population size comparable to Greece, had to pay a higher price during this pandemic. At first glance, the above pro-Greek voices may appear odd. Greece was not the sole country that did well during this crisis; New Zealand and Denmark – to mention just two – have done the same. Why then this particular and unusual attention to a small country like Greece? This is perhaps due to the fact that exactly the same country has made headlines a few years ago in the context of the deep economic crisis that was shaking the foundations of the Eurozone and even presenting a lethal danger to it. At that time, Greece was a model to be strongly avoided. Its ejection from the Eurozone and even from the European Union was more than imminent. After all, Greece’s status was always a liminal one. It was never considered to be a full Western country, but rather something in-between; a mix of different Eastern and Western traditions, not to mention Oriental ones, across history; an attractive topos of the Western imagination, full of elapsed ancient glories; a sui generis case on the edge of South Eastern Europe. Not to forget: Samuel Huntington in his notorious geopolitical theory back in the 1990s had called Greece “an anomaly” in the Western system structure, thus pointing to its special character as a state.

An empty street in central Athens during the Coronavirus lockdown (© Wikimedia Commons)
An empty street in central Athens during the Coronavirus lockdown (© Wikimedia Commons)

How then could this “scapegoat country” now be suddenly transformed into a success story others seek to emulate? In fact, given the chronic deficits of the country’s health care system and its longstanding reputation of ungovernmentability, the general expectation was a particularly high death toll and yet another unmanageable crisis. However, the swift response to the pandemic by the present government produced the opposite effect. Greeks have been notoriously recalcitrant people, defying political authorities and official government agendas, exhibiting egoistic behaviour, disregarding public good, and acting and coping with challenges sentimentally and irrationally – a carefree “dance-your-troubles-away”-attitude, perfectly embodied by Anthony Quinn in the well-known 1964 movie “Zorba the Greek”, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel. Why then, in this instance, did they accept and follow the government’s orders, advice and strict lockdown measures? There are various explanations of this paradox: It was explained, for instance, in relation to Greek society’s tiredness from the long decade of economic hardship and international ridicule and the need to show a better collective face, not only domestically, but also to the outside world. It may be also related to a longstanding cultural predisposition of Greeks with the somatisation of problems and their constant preoccupation with illness. This is reflected, among other things, in the fact that doctors are highly esteemed and that the population is more readily responsive to physicians than to government officials. Thus, Greeks followed closely and quasi-religiously the daily briefings of (Harvard-educated) immunologist and Health Ministry spokesperson Sotirios Tsiodras when he addressed the nation and gave practical advice on how to protect oneself, one’s family, and by extension the greater society from the virus.

Whatever the reasons for this remarkable change were, a vital conclusion may be drawn from this case: In dealing with this crisis, Greece has proven to be more “Western” than the rest, pointing once more to the need for a reassessment of the conventional discourse about progress, development, rational strategies, social organisation and pragmatic effectiveness in Western countries and settings. Truth be told, it is not the first time that this happens, as Western superiority, either real or fictive, has come under severe criticism during the last decades in the contexts of postmodernity and postcolonialism. Clearly, the case of Greece during the current pandemic is a re-invitation for us to reflect deeper on how easily and quickly such stereotypes about Western progressiveness and non-Western belatedness are constructed and deconstructed. However, one thing remains certain: Such stereotypes will never disappear, but will be refashioned to tell the same story, perhaps with different words and in different contexts.

A second analytical field related to this pandemic and potential East-West differences we would like to draw attention to concerns the use of face masks. This has become more or less mandatory as a necessary and effective means in combatting the spread of the virus. Evidently, mask-wearing is not a medical issue alone, but bound up in sociocultural norms and practices. Did the West learn from the East how to wear face masks and even to tolerate them? Is it true that East Asian and South East Asian populations and even Asians living in Western settings used to wear masks in all four seasons, even before the outbreak of Covid-19; for example, to protect themselves against air pollution or infectious diseases. China is again a case in point, especially after the previous SARS epidemic of 2003. There is also a face mask culture in Asia that even goes back to the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1920. On the contrary, Western people seldom wore medical masks and lacked such a culture, whereas the sight of Asian tourists in the West wearing such masks often elicited puzzlement or stigmatisation by the public or even suspicion by authorities. Yet, the crisis aggravated the whole situation and often subjected Asians to vilification and discrimination. It also rendered the demand and the dwindling supply of masks suddenly to a global frenzy, as the West found itself totally unprepared to deal with it, leading often to “face masks wars” between various countries.

Even so, and despite the often obligatory nature of wearing masks during the pandemic, the whole issue is also highly cultural. There is namely a weighty symbolism behind this apparently simple choice. Covering the face is in many ways problematic for the Western mind, not only under external pressure because of Covid-19, but also generally – consider, for instance, various debates about or state prohibitions for Muslim women to wear a veil in various Western countries. In a way, wearing masks became an issue of collective and communal solidarity in Asia, and their use became normalised; in other words, a usual, everyday practise. In the Asian context, this is also related to cultural traits, such a communal sense of respecting the other in terms of their privacy and personal space, as well as the protection of the self from external judgements. Hence, aside from state-sanctioned penalties and fines, not wearing masks would signify irresponsible behaviour and lack of social cohesion. Negative reactions may thus be elicited from ordinary people in the streets against non-conformists, which have often included Western people living in or visiting East Asia. There is therefore a prevailing mentality of civil obedience and submissiveness to authority and to a higher imposed decision for the common good. This happens irrespective of differences in political structures, such as between the more authoritarian China and the more democratic South Korea, grounded in shared traditions of Confucian social ethic and civic consciousness.

The mask issue and its cultural context went mostly unnoticed and did not matter in the West until the Covid-19 outbreak when Asian people living in the West started to be indistinctly discriminated as potential virus carriers and spreaders. But the problem did not stop there. Due to government imposed-measures regarding the obligatory mask-wearing, people in the West had to reconsider their tradition of uncovered faces, deeply connected to their enhanced sense of individuality and freedom from all constraints. In the West, the individual should not be necessarily subjected to government or communal dictates, a fact that also explains the greater fragmentation prevalent within Western societies. This can also be observed in the way many Western people defied the lockdowns, an act that would be unthinkable in East Asia. For the latter, as already mentioned, the pandemic had to be treated collectively and communally, not individually. Hence, the whole issue concerns the relations between more individually-oriented cultures and more collectively-structured ones. Even if in the wake of the crisis, face masks have been adapted to Western individuality and often turned into fashion statements, the problem regarding the overall legitimacy to use them still lingers on.

It is also worth mentioning that Western governments and even the scientific community showed great ambivalence and differences in implementing this “alien” measure widely and without exception, concerned that it might fuel excessive fear and unnecessary panic. This becomes obvious by looking at the numerous scientific, yet inconsistent discussions and debates in Western contexts about the actual effectiveness of face masks in stopping the spread of the virus. Perhaps the most prominent case of such inconsistency has been that of US President Donald Trump, who refused to wear such a mask, especially in front of cameras, calling it a “voluntary measure” – contrary to his administration’ and medical authorities’ urges to citizens to cover their faces in public, especially enclosed places as a means against transmitting the infectious disease. In Trump’s case, this decision is perhaps related to issues of power, persuasive leadership and strong personality, transmitted through his facial expressions when speaking – something that a face mask would certainly hide. Mask-wearing might have also evoked signs of vulnerability for such a global leader, something not in line with the obvious self-confidence of the world’s strongest state. It also has to do with a sense of Western exceptionalism, supremacy and superiority, prevalent in Trump’s discourse, as he kept calling Covid-19 a “Chinese virus” that initially was deemed inconceivable as a threat to the perceived immunity of the Western superpower. This may further explain why the imminent danger was underestimated at the beginning, and the lockdown decision was taken with considerable delay. A similar attitude mutatis mutandis may be observed in Great Britain with Boris Johnson’s policies – until, of course, his own health was seriously tested by the unstoppable virus that did not distinguish any individual or cultural exceptionalisms. In more general terms, the reluctant use of face masks by Western people is first and foremost about the feared negative consequences of face covering. Facial expressions (and not only eye contact, which is normally not hidden by such a mask) are important for social interaction in the West as part of one’s own personal identity.

US President Donald Trump at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida,  on May 27, 2020, without wearing a face mask contrary to the surrounding people
US President Donald Trump at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 27, 2020, without wearing a face mask contrary to the surrounding people (© Wikimedia Commons)

Seen in this way, the problem for the West here is about personal liberties, expressive individuality, liberal attitudes and self-realisation beyond the constraints of an amorphous collectiveness and ritualistic uniformity, topics that have been extremely emphasised in the West since the dawn of the modern era. In some media, face masks were even racialised and construed as an outspokenly “Asian phenomenon”, alien to the European or more general Western culture. There is currently an obvious cultural resistance to mask-wearing in the West that points to the resilience of traditions of Western individuality and liberality even within the present global melting pot. The same concerns the issue of social distancing, which could be argued to be more ingrained into East Asian culture through the less direct personal physical contact of greeting each other (e.g., through bowing) than in Western culture (e.g., through hand-shaking, hugging and cheek-kissing). Obviously, that is not to say that there are no discrepancies in the habitus of Western cultures, for instance between the European North and South. To this extent, social distancing proved to be far easier or even “unnecessary” as a measure for some North European countries (e.g., Sweden) in comparison with South European countries such as Italy and Spain. Furthermore, similar attitudes have been adopted towards the digital tracing of the infected through a surveillance network, a measure that has been mostly accepted in East Asia without significant reactions, whereas in the West it is regarded as a most serious threat against the rights to privacy. In all probability, all these differences may also partially explain why East Asian countries have contained the pandemic more effectively than the West on almost all metrics, also considering that the pandemic wreaked its greatest havoc among the Western richest nations, which supposedly had the power and the means to handle it effectively in the first place.

So, where does the West in comparison to the rest of the world in the context of the present crisis stand today? Again, the variations within the current and broad Western world are conspicuous and should not be overlooked. It has been thus argued that ex-communist countries like Slovakia and the Czech Republic, both EU member states today, were among the first to impose mandatory face masks partly because of their communist legacy’s emphasis on collectivism. The present crisis has also revealed the serious antinomies within the West itself, its lack of unity and solidarity, and its dependence upon the rest of world. At times, the Western world appeared as a “broken glass”. The early dissonances and conflicts surrounding the much-expected discovery of a vaccine and its potential distribution attest to this. In fact, it was China that offered to help the West in many ways (e.g., by providing face masks, medical and other equipment). The old “silk road” was thus replaced during the pandemic by a “mask road”. In addition, the quick spread of the virus especially in the West and the numerous negative repercussions thereof have again brought the myth about the alleged Western superiority over the rest of the world into prominence. The West used to depend on its scientifically effective medicine that was endowed with almost superhuman qualities, intrinsic to its own self-definition, and to acquiesce in its supposed invulnerability. In fact, the outbreak of such a pandemic in the West was totally unimaginable; it was thought to belong rather to bygone eras. This also explains why Western states and populations appeared to be totally unprepared for this kind of crisis that came out of the blue and even underestimated the danger at the outset. “This could happen solely to others, not to us Westerners” – that was the dominant thought behind the initial state negligence to take serious action. This kind of alleged Western immunity went hand in hand with that of Western exceptionalism and evolutionist thinking of a superior civilisation that is clearly demarcated from “Eastern bestiality”. In other words, the need of controlling the barrier between humans and animals is stronger in the West than in the East. This is evident, for instance, in the former’s pride in the triumph of its culture over nature, exemplified in the excessive demand for toilet paper unique to Western cultures (and not to the East Asian ones, with the exception perhaps of Hong Kong); and in the East Asian cuisine habits regarding edible or non-edible animals, which was painted scoldingly by the West as the “beastly original sin” bringing about the current pandemic. It is about the well-known barrier between nature and culture that manifested itself on many occasions during the present pandemic.

Bearing all this in mind, the current pandemic has emphasised the importance of looking beneath the surface of the alleged uniform and homogeneous West, as it has highlighted idiosyncratic developments in which Eastern and Western stereotypes in attitudes have blended or been clearly delineated within different or even within the same Western contexts, begging for a pressing reconsideration not only of the conundrum “What is 'Western' about the West?”, but also “What is 'Eastern' about the East?”.