The primary event itself of course is the global COVID-19 pandemic, which unleashed enormous political, economic and social shockwaves, the long-term consequences of which are still yet to be seen, and at the time of writing, despite the advent of a number of promising vaccines, the crisis isn’t over yet. In fact, in spite of all the optimism, in many countries the situation continues to worsen.
Never has that been truer for the UK. Over the past few weeks, the government was forced to put ever numerous areas of the country under tight “Tier 4” lockdowns, the third effective lockdown of its kind, after a mutated version of the virus with increased transmissibility began to spread rapidly.
While London is in an exceptionally bad position, it is hardly unique with other countries across the western hemisphere also in dire straits, not least the US. As of Sunday, about one in every 1,000 people had died of COVID-19 in the US.
Before COVID-19 struck, Western societies genuinely believed this kind of situation was not applicable to them. This hampered their ability to take it seriously.
But the fact that it is now the end of 2020 and some countries continue to fall into an ever-perilous situation reveals deep governmental and social flaws in Western societies. Both governance and society failed to account for the common good.
Western administrations have repeatedly rushed out of lockdowns, scuppered safeguards and been hesitant to act against corporate interests. This is most evident in, but by no means exclusive to, the US and the UK.
Yet this has only been complimented by social problems in the highly individualist nature of both countries. By and large, people in the West are driven by strong individualist sentiment and do not want to follow rules or make sacrifices for the greater good against their immediate interests. Again, in Britain and America as leading examples, many have refused to wear masks, refused to adhere to social distancing practices and actively voiced political discontent against measures such as lockdowns. This has torpedoed a stable pandemic response policy.
In Britain, Boris Johnson’s government talked about “saving the summer” and “saving Christmas” appealing to people’s popular demands rather than making tough decisions. This led only to a U-turn on them, respectively, when disastrous consequences emerged anyway. In East Asia, where populations have generally been more compliant and disciplined, this problem has not repeated itself. The broader point that economic damage can be prevented by making forthright, pre-emptive actions at the early stages has repeatedly fallen on deaf ears among Western policymakers.
As a result, 2020 has subsequently ended with a noticeable divergence between East and West in terms of fortunes, barring some notable exceptions such as New Zealand. Although vaccinations have begun, Western countries have found themselves in a never-ending cycle of perpetuating the COVID-19 crisis whereby governments are repeatedly afraid to make unpopular decisions. They continue to pander to corporate and financial lobbying. Many are still unwilling to take even basic precautions. Thus, as a whole, such countries have lacked the cohesion, discipline and political will to stamp out widespread community transmission. The same cannot be said for China itself and most of Asia.
Given this, the year 2020 stands out as a “historical turning point” not only for the social implications of the pandemic and the upheavals which it will create. It is also a measure of how it represents a shift in the global balance of power. Asia has maintained steady while the West suffers severe economic depletion and spiraling crises.
It is no surprise that a new report from the UK’s Centre for Economics and Business Research finds that as a result, China’s economy will become the world’s largest by 2028 and overtake the US. Those who are continuing to point fingers at Beijing ultimately fail to accept the reality that it has overcome the virus successfully. They additionally fail to learn valuable lessons of survival. As Martin Jacques, who was until recently a senior fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University, noted, this is “a historic crisis of Western government, society and culture.”
The author is a British analyst of political and international relations and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities.