"What did other Asian countries do right, and what are we doing wrong?"
Addressing elder siblings as “ate” and “kuya” makes clear the importance of family relationships among Filipinos. In fact, one could say that a Filipino is born into a home defined by one’s filial responsibilities, in contrast to the Western emphasis on individuality and personal freedom.
The use of kinship terminology among Asian cultures, however, is more than just about propriety and politeness – it is a reflection of one’s self-understanding and self-identity. How a person is addressed denotes not only familiarity, but also how he stands within this web of relationships, and in relation to generational hierarchy. This reinforces the fact that for the Asian, the family is the individual’s first community, where one learns his place in society.
In the face of this continuing threat of the coronavirus disease, it is surprising to note that among the first to effectively limit its spread are the developing economies in Southeast Asia. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand were among the few countries in the world to register zero new infections in the last few weeks, indicating an initial success against COVID-19. Despite apparent limitations on their healthcare systems, these countries were able to do more with less – not only effectively “flattening the curve,” but altogether reversing its further transmission at greater success despite, using the same response strategies of testing, tracing and treatment.
The Philippines and many other countries, including a number of developed economies, have adopted the same strategy to test, trace and treat. They, however, have struggled to achieve the same results. The question, therefore, is this: What did these countries do right, and what are we doing wrong?
It is true that many of our Asian neighbors were able to act in haste in imposing travel restrictions, setting up community quarantine measures and aggressively implementing massive COVID-19 testing – but so did many other countries and yet the number of new infections continue to increase.
Observers say that the political system in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and even Thailand is the primary factor in the success of their COVID-19 response. But in order to fully understand why these countries succeeded where we struggle, it is important to take a closer look into their cultural self-understanding and value system.
As Asian families expand into more complex societies, strong family values are carried over as an expression of social identity, providing a foundation for a paternalistic State. A person’s identity cannot be separate from one’s own family, and his family into that of the extended family, then the extended family into the wider society. Thus, as in a nuclear family, one’s social, even professional, role are shaped by filial responsibilities; and the community takes precedence over one’s own needs and interests.
This brings back to mind the concept of the “fiduciary self” – where one places society over self. Consequently, even the exercise of one’s individual rights and freedom is deferent to that of the established authority. Self-efficacy, therefore, is defined not simply by what one has achieved for one’s own self-gain, but is also measured by the amount of what one has achieved for the greater good, requiring a difficult balance between individual and societal needs.
This also explains the apparent disconnect between Filipinos and our Asian neighbors. Our value system, although inherently Asian, has been heavily influenced by centuries of colonial rule and undiscerning exposure to Western values. Paradoxically, while we are born to an Asian family outlook; growing up in our schools and society, we become increasingly partial to Western social values, alienating us from the Asian self-identity that we are born into.
Unlike our Asian neighbors, our country has fully copied Western-style liberal democracy and adopted the capitalist economic system. In our schools and workplaces, there is an imbalanced emphasis on individualism and competition, rooted in the false premise that the growth of societies is built on the “survival of the fittest.” Foregoing discipline and frugality, contemporary Filipino society is being steadily shaped by profit, consumerism and personal autonomy. Thus, as many would deplore, there is an inordinate emphasis on individual rights and personal freedom, but not same and equal attention on civic duty and social responsibility.
This is what we lack and we need to learn from our Asian neighbors – to become increasingly aware of the need to fulfill our individual responsibility toward family and the community over consideration for personal interest, knowing that the meaning of one’s life depends on the well-being of the people around us.
By now, it is clear that there is much is to be desired in our country’s COVID-19 response. Many believe that reason behind the poor implementation of the COVID-19 strategy is the our lack of discipline. If one would deduce from the number of persons apprehended for violation of quarantine measures, and widespread disregard of social distancing rules, including the growing distrust and even disregard for authority – this could be true.
But the fact that our irresponsibility and lack of discipline have aggravated our current situation calls for an even deeper introspection. Discipline is not a matter that can be learned overnight. Nor can it be easily imposed. In fact, this perceived lack of discipline is simply symptomatic of an even more prevalent social illness of a broken cultural and moral self-identity. What is more important is that as Filipinos, we should understand that our actions – and inaction – may form half the problem, but it could also be half the solution. In the face of an existential threat such as COVID-19, our people have to be aware that what we do, or what we leave undone, could have monumental consequences on our future.
What did our Asian neighbors do right, and what are we doing wrong? Society over self. There is no other way. We have to break free of our self-referential perspectives. Simply put, we have to care more about others inasmuch as we care about ourselves. We cannot go on doing what we like to do, and complaining about what we are told to do. As our Asian neighbors have shown and achieved, that if we are to win over COVID-19 as well as over perennial social ills such as poverty, inequality and injustice, we cannot do it pointing fingers at each other, we can only do so by linking our arms and working together as one nation. Now, more than ever, we have to stop being our people’s greatest enemy.