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Why Asian countries are beating COVID-19 while US struggles

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IN MALAYSIA, like much of the world, coronavirus infections began rocketing in early March and eventually topped 8,800. By early June daily caseloads had fallen to around 10 to 20 and they’ve never resurged.  

  Coronavirus infections in the United States also began a steep climb in early March but instead of falling in June surged upwards to some of the country’s worst ever.  

  Malaysia is just the latest success story in East Asia. Most of its neighbors have stopped the spread on COVID-19 because of several advantages missing in the United States, analysts say. Asians proactively protect one another from disease and trust government officials, who in turn take seriously the risk of respiratory disease spilling over from China.  

  “I think it’s cultural,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.  

  “People here are still collectivist in orientation of thought, meaning even if a certain government is despised, they will still listen to instructions especially if they are reasonable,” Chong said. “The idea of stay at home, people will obey because the collective good is explained to them in a self-evident way.”  

The two sides of the Pacific Ocean might normally go separate ways, but in April U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo described the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations as “strategic partners” in responding to COVID-19 and called for collaboration.  

  In mid-July the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee vice chairman expressed appreciation to the Southeast Asian bloc for sharing “lessons and experiences” in controlling the disease, Asian media outlets reported. U.S. President Donald Trump had thanked the Vietnamese prime minister in May for supplying medical gear and giving facemasks to the United States.  

  Americans have defied stay-at-home orders and urged their removal, sparking new waves of infections since June. Some citizens of the country still avoid facemasks. Trump called the mouth covers “patriotic” only this week, after months of resistance.  

  Confucianism, a cultural force in East Asia that advocates duty to society over individual needs, has been cited to explain Asian responses to COVID-19 and lack of cohesion in the United States, according to March 31 blog post by the Wilson Center policy forum.  

  In Hong Kong, antigovernment protesters active over the past year suspend their activities when virus cases rise as they have over the past month.  

Taiwanese regularly wear facemasks in public even though COVID-19 shows no sign of community transmission. Taiwan’s health minister Chen Shih-chung was so respected for his handling of the virus this year that citizens crafted pop-up cartoons and doll-sized effigies in his image.  

Ethnic Malay cultures in Malaysia and Indonesia promote banding together against common threats, Chong said.  

  Within a week of Malaysia declaring its lockdown, some 95% of the population had complied with the order, said Ibrahim Suffian, program director with the polling group Merdeka Center in Kuala Lumpur.  

  “I think many Malaysians wouldn’t be able to understand what goes on in the minds of many Americans, because I think in the case of Malaysia the trust in the experts and trust in the bureaucracy is still relatively high, whereas perhaps in the U.S. there’s this issue of trust in government,” Suffian said.  

  “Most people didn’t question, and in fact most people felt the government lifted the lockdown too early,” he said.  

Governments in Asia need not always remind people to wear masks, keep distance and stay home.

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