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China’s democratic neighbours and coronavirus: Protecting populations without lockdowns

Written by Gisela Grieger and Enrico D’Ambrogio,

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North-east Asian countries have deep and historical economic, human and cultural connections with China, based on their geographical proximity to the latter country, and were the first to be exposed to the coronavirus contagion after its initial outbreak. They were not caught unprepared, having dealt with the SARS and the MERS epidemics in recent times.

South Korea and Taiwan, in particular, have successfully showcased a model characterised by minimal restrictions on economic activities and daily lives, where safeguarding the health of the people has not had devastating consequences for the health of the economy, as witnessed in other parts of the world. They have also showed that it is possible to effectively manage the coronavirus threat transparently, without authoritarian methods. Their models, illustrating that it is possible to implement a successful – albeit sometimes unnoticed – alternative to a liberal laissez-faire model or to a drastic lockdown, could become precious assets for public diplomacy and soft power tools.

Given the high rate of information and communications technology penetration in the region, it has been easier for the authorities to make use of big data and contact-tracing by smartphone in order to prevent the pandemic from spreading, as well as collect information on those infected. However, this approach has raised issues of privacy, especially as the details collected allow the identification of those infected and could possibly expose them to stigmatisation.

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, South Korea is a healthy democracy. It successfully held a general election on 15 April 2020, giving substance to the statement made by the European Parliament’s President, David Sassoli: ‘Democracy cannot be suspended in the face of Covid-19’.

Read the complete briefing on ‘China’s democratic neighbours and coronavirus: Protecting populations without lockdowns‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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