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Japan traffic lights

Red Light, Green Light

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted patterns of life on all levels, forcing individuals into crisis management, restricting the social lives of communities, and disrupting global systems of collaboration and exchanges, supply chains and trade. As we are writing from Hong Kong, more than 18 months into the pandemic, we know that its end is not yet in sight. Its longer-term impacts are even less clearly recognisable at the moment.

This pandemic has dragged the world into a puzzling time warp that resembles one of the popular “stop-and-go” childhood games such as the one known in Hong Kong as Red Light, Green Light. Depending on local transmission waves of the disease and health policies, in some months we have found ourselves socially isolated, with work nearly ground to a halt and life plans jeopardised. In other months the clock ticks again – people take a deep breath and walk in the open, hurriedly trot along old routines to make up for lost time, and some have dashed around the clock to set up massive quarantine, vaccination, or aid facilities within tight constraints.

It still takes 365 days for the Earth to orbit the Sun, but under the pandemic, we have experienced the flow of time differently. The Tokyo Olympics were delayed for one full year; so were countless private events and important individual decisions, from holding a wedding to entering an educational institution or starting a new job. With few warnings or predictive signs, the pandemic hourglass may be flipped at any time, driving societies into the next phase of an alternating cycle.

By August 2021, Asian policy makers, like their colleagues all over the world, continued to face a choice between strategies of restriction and/or surveillance and quarantine, or making an informed bet on rising vaccination rates and continued vaccine efficacy while relaxing restrictions. In an early phase of the crisis, many Asian countries had been successful using rather restrictive strategies to contain the spread of the pandemic. But such strategies involved obvious hardships, especially for poor populations, and only some countries and places were willing and able to pursue them seriously over extended periods of time. Even then they did not always translate into a successful containment of Covid-19. In some cases, arguably, they may even have led to a delay of vaccination efforts, as a sense of urgency appears to have been lacking. Differences in policy choices, governance quality and public trust produced very diverse outcomes of pandemic management.

When we initially conceptualised an issue of Perspectives Asia focusing on the pandemic, we had two aims: We intended to look into how the pandemic affects policies and people’s lives in Asia, and to explore how to move towards a “green recovery” when economies and societies resume their activities. Meanwhile, the pandemic has had disruptive impacts on the “fabric of society”: on everyday lives, institutions, economy and culture, and some of these impacts may last much longer than the pandemic itself. At this time, talking about anything definitively “post-Covid19” is largely premature, or remains speculative. Our conscientious approach is to share down-to-earth experiences from different regions and cultures in Asia and take a look at how the pandemic is reshaping lives, on the level of individuals and groups, but also with a particular look at state/society relationships. We opt to stand with those who are undergoing hardship and suffering, and we seek to present snapshots and analyses that contribute to a dialogue within the region and beyond.

One of the defining issues that evolved from the experience of the pandemic globally is the importance of trust (or lack of it) in governance and governments. Jessie Lau provides an analysis of this relationship for five Asian countries, while Moe Thuzar portrays ASEAN’s handling of the crisis more from a policy perspective. Rina Saeed Khan introduces an interesting government-driven tree-planting project in Pakistan, which aims to tackle both the country’s long-standing climate change problems and unemployment during the pandemic.

Other contributions to this edition focus strongly on individual lives in Asia under pandemic conditions. Zhang Rou interviewed ordinary people in China to recall and compare their experience between SARS in 2003 and the current Covid-19; there were moments of déjà vu but also entirely new dynamics, resulting especially from the availability of new information technologies. Khy Sovuthy and Miguel Jeronimo present, by feature story and photo story respectively, the circumstances of Cambodian migrant workers who have had to return home from Thailand and face very uncertain futures.

Experiences of the pandemic differed strongly, not only by country but also by gender. Jeong-Hyun Lee discusses how South Korea’s Digital New Deal policy, with all its focus on technology and digitalisation, reinforces existing conservative gendered realities for males and females under the pandemic. Culture comes in in another dimensions as well: Psychologists Emma Buchtel and Li Man-Wai Liman share their insights on face mask culture and vaccine hesitation in Asia.

At the end of this issue, we dare to take a speculative look forward. In a story set somewhere in urban Asia a decade into the future, Chermaine Lee imagines what may be left of the Covid-19 pandemic in the long run.

This issue is accompanied by an online dossier with additional multimedia content, such as a video created by our India office entitled Brave New World (see page 48). We are grateful to all contributors and collaborators. Our special thanks go to Carmen Lym, whose front and back cover design embraces a vulnerable and lonely globe under the pandemic, showing diversified snapshots of human life situations, all of it with a gentle touch that, perhaps, is soothing.

Lucia Siu and editorial team

Heinrich Böll Stiftung Hong Kong