Many countries including South Korea are doing a far better job than America in fighting COVID-19. One significant reason is a matter of culture: While Americans are far more concerned with how the virus is affecting them personally, South Koreans consider protecting their family members and fellow citizens to be a moral obligation.
Back in the 90s, I taught English in South Korea for a couple of years. I taught grades 1-12 at a private institution my first year, and students at Wonkwang university my second year. No matter what age, my students wore masks frequently. Not to protect themselves mind you, but in order to protect their fellow students from being exposed to their illnesses.
So, I’m chagrined that some of my fellow Americans don’t understand the logic in wearing masks. Frankly, the benefits are obvious — right in front of their noses so-to-speak. In fact, I learned while still a toddler that when you cover your mouth and nose before coughing it prevents your spit from landing on another person’s face. I guess I just expect others to understand this simple lesson too and prevent others from getting sick, or worse, dying.
Conspiracies behind the wearing of masks
While a significant number of Americans do comprehend this, those who don’t have managed to come up with an unimpressive list of reasons as to why they refuse to wear masks.
- They think wearing masks is an assault on their personal freedoms
- They don’t believe in the scientific evidence that wearing masks saves lives
- They believe in conspiracy theories
- They believe they’re making a political statement by not wearing masks
The basic conspiracy theory being peddled is that certain medical professionals, governmental officials, and/or other wealthy, powerful intellectuals are working for — or being controlled by — a shadow government which is mandating the wearing of masks. But the wearing of masks represents just a symbolic act foreshadowing even deeper layers of conspiracies, which fan out towards equally improbable conclusions like tree roots.
There are conspiracies about people creating COVID-19 to use for population control … conspiracies about entrepreneurs manufacturing the virus to profit from a vaccine … or the conspiracy that the virus represents a new form of biological warfare that was intentionally or accidentally released by the Chinese.
What really lies at the root of these kinds of conspiracies is a virulent pessimism about the goodness of humanity, the value of factual evidence, and an unbridled self-interest that “trumps” the value one places on human life.
Which is why folks in many countries around the world are left scratching their heads as to why they hold America and its citizens to such high esteem. These days, the global consensus seems to be that Americans are too contagious (and perhaps too stupid and politically toxic) to be crossing their borders.
The primary advantage Koreans have that’s helping them win the war on COVID-19
The aggressive response from the South Korean government has to date been far superior to the Trump administration’s response. The South Korean government attacked this virus as though a foreign invader was killing its citizens. Their government made it a high priority to fight this enemy with all the ammunition at their disposal such as ensuring there were plenty of masks and other PPE, providing adequate testing, and instituting a vigorous contact tracing program.
Yet, there’s one, huge reason why South Korea has had far better success. It’s one I’ve witnessed first hand after spending two years immersed in Korean culture. Simply put, the Koreans enjoy a shared form of conscientious awareness. Which is to say, they tend to act in the best interests of their fellow citizens, rather than for their own personal gain.
One quick example …
During the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis South Korea borrowed significant funds from the International Monetary Fund to help solve their financial woes. In an effort to help their own government pay off the IMF loans, the South Korean people participated in a gold collecting campaign and raised $2.2 billion dollars selling personal items like gold wedding bands and sports medals. (Several of my former students explained this campaign to me with a great sense of nationalistic pride.)
Question. Would Americans sell their own personal valuables and give that money to the federal government?
Of course not. South Koreans, on the other and, trust their governmental officials far more than Americans trust our politicians. More significantly, South Koreans consider protecting their fellow citizens from being exposed to the virus as a moral obligation.
Americans will win the battle agains the virus
Way back in March of this year I thought — mistakenly — that within 6 months the worst that COVID-19 had to throw at our country would be beaten back. I watched what other countries were doing to win their own coronavirus fights, and I anticipated our federal government would learn from these other countries and implement their successes. But in the absence of executive leadership we failed, and the virus is on track to kill 200,000 or more of our fellow citizens in the near future.
But rather than get caught up in all the hoopla surrounding this virus, I like to remind people about the spread of misinformation that accompanied the onset of the AIDS virus. As with the coronavirus, massive confusion reigned when the AIDS virus first surfaced. Nobody knew where it came from, everyone had their opinion how it spread, conspiracy theories abounded, and a few foolish evangelicals even offered prophetic ramblings and pointed fingers towards certain “kinds” of people in which to place blame.
Americans will get through this, and so too humanity at large. But while we’re waiting for the data to settle to inform us precisely how we will win this battle against the virus, we can all do our simple part in wearing a mask and maintaining a healthy distance from one another until better information leads us to do otherwise.