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Europe lagged behind Asia in handling the coronavirus crisis

Published on 22.2.2021
Tampere University
Ari-Veikko Anttitroiko/ Kuva: Jonne RenvallAri-Veikko Anttiroiko found crucial differences between countries in East and Southeast Asia, Europe, and Asia-Pacific in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Leadership, knowledge culture and learning from past experiences made the difference.
Asian countries were proactive and diligent in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic while European countries were somewhat slower and more reactive.

Ari-Veikko Anttiroiko, adjunct professor of local and regional governance at Tampere University, found variation in the ways countries in East and Southeast Asia, Europe and the Asia-Pacific dealt with the coronavirus, which can be traced to differences in their history, culture, and political systems. However, such differences are not clear and straightforward enough to be assumed to reflect two distinctive models, those of developmentalist Asian and the liberal Western.

“The countries’ success is not explained by governance models but by leadership, knowledge culture and learning from experiences,” Anttiroiko points out.

In his recent article, Anttiroiko analysed the coronavirus responses of 17 countries or city states during the first half of 2020. The countries were Taiwan, Hong Kong SAR, China, Japan and South Korea from East Asia, Vietnam and Singapore from Southeast Asia, Finland, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden from the Nordic countries, Germany and Austria from Central Europe, Italy and Spain from South Europe, and the Asia-Pacific countries of New Zealand and Australia.

The SARS epidemic urged Asian countries to improve crisis preparedness

There are several countries both in Asia and Europe that have been fairly successful in curbing the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the most success stories can be found in Asia.

From the outset, Asian countries showed diligence and determination in combating the disease. Anttiroiko finds it noteworthy that previous epidemics such as SARS hit hard on Asian countries in particular and urged them to improve their crisis preparedness.

Asian countries seem to accept a certain degree of privacy violations if it is justified by public interest. Asian civil society shows a high level of norm compliance, which is a prerequisite for successful COVID-19 restrictions, including social distancing and lockdowns. Such conditions give these countries an advantage in responding to the pandemic.

Common denominators of successful responses among Asian countries seemed to have been early travel restrictions, quarantine arrangements, effective social distancing, efficient health care systems, and the knowledge-intensive approach.

European plurality and diversity is reflected in COVID-19 responses

Europe is a diverse continent in terms of cultural history, which is also reflected in its crisis preparedness and factual responses.

European countries give a high priority to privacy and human rights issues. Government responses must be approved by the general public, and the decisions have to be politically legitimate. According to Anttiroiko, such demands were pronounced in the public debate on the management of the COVID-19 crisis.

Anttiroiko regards the slowness and occasional inconsistencies of responses to increased transmissions in Europe as striking. However, as the crisis deepened, a certain degree of consensus emerged about the need for more stringent measures to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic.

Two Commonwealth countries, Australia and New Zealand, form a category of their own among the Western countries. They benefited from their remote location, relatively low population density as well as their efficient, uncorrupted, and progressive governments.

They were evidently swifter with their responses than let’s say South European countries and achieved results that were on a par with the best Asian performers.

The coronavirus as a turning point in urban development

The spreading of COVID-19 is in many respects an urban crisis. Cities have also a vital role in implementing anti-contagion policies and adjusting measures to local conditions.

The global media environment covers mainly news about national developments and policies, while cities work in the background. As the primary instance of local governance, city governments are obliged to ensure that policy measures are tailored to address local needs and circumstances.

Anttiroiko estimates that COVID-19 is a turning point which will leave its mark not only on intergovernmental relations but also on cities’ orientation towards urban planning, design, and development.

Post-COVID-19 urban planning will revolve around increased interest in urban safety, creative approaches to urban space, and diversifying the use of online platforms and smart solutions. Equally important will be citizen’s engagement and social inclusion, which are related to the moral obligation to ensure inhabitants’ right to their own city also in times of crisis.

Text: Heikki Laurinolli
Photograph: Jonne Renvall

Ari-Veikko Anttiroiko: Successful government responses to the pandemic: Contextualizing national and urban responses to the COVID-19 outbreak in East and West. International Journal of E-Planning Research. Volume 10, Issue 2, 2021.