Views on COVID’s Societal Effects Vary Widely Across Asian Democracies

Praise, frustration over restrictions . . .

A new Pew Research poll shows economically advanced democracies having wide-ranging views of their governments’ and societies’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Six of the poll’s 17 democracies are in the Asia Pacific – Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan – with the rest in North America and Western Europe. When asked whether they felt their governments struck the right balance in restricting public activity, 62 per cent of Japanese felt that there needed to be more restrictions, considerably higher than the poll median (37%). The only other countries where majorities felt the need for more restrictions were the U.S. (56%) and Canada (53%). Large majorities in New Zealand (80%), Taiwan (78%), and Australia (68%) gave their governments high marks for getting the balance “about right.”

Recovery exposing economic systems’ flaws, strengths . . .

In aggregate, these societies were evenly split over whether the pandemic recovery was showing the strengths (46%) or exposing the weaknesses (47%) of their economic systems. Overall, feelings in the Asia Pacific were considerably more positive on this question than in Europe, ranging from 77 per cent in Singapore to 55 per cent in South Korea who felt the pandemic showed the strengths rather than exposed the weaknesses of their economic systems. Japan was the outlier: 77 per cent of respondents felt that their recovery efforts exposed the weaknesses of their economic system.

Social division or cohesion?

One of the poll’s most striking findings was whether respondents felt the pandemic had encouraged greater national unity or fostered social division. A median of 61 per cent felt their societies were more divided than before the pandemic. The only democracies that felt they were more united were in the Asia Pacific: Singapore (86%), New Zealand (75%), Taiwan (68%), and Australia (59%). Japan and South Korea broke with the regional pattern, with 61 per cent and 59 per cent of South Koreans and Japanese, respectively, feeling they were more divided. It is unclear how much this sense of unity or divisiveness in these two societies pre-dated the pandemic. Still, it could be a factor in two major upcoming events: Tokyo’s hosting of the Summer Olympics next month, and South Korea’s presidential election in early 2022.