COVID-19 in Asia and beyond: we are story characters living in a new story world

Contemporary societies worldwide, and across the Asia-Pacific, have joined another realm. We struggle to make sense of the pandemic, ranging from the decelerated experience that continuously working from home promises, through to the immersion into COVID-19 impacts via news and social media.

The key insight

Across the world societies have joined another realm: this pandemic and its response have created a new narrative world, rather like a peculiar disaster movie, that prioritises only certain types of heroes and “expertise”. Unlike the stereotypical disaster feature, our new true heroes are the characters combating the disease: the health professionals – embracing both government medical officers as well as front line medics, but (curiously) not really the psychologists or pharmacists.

And while other untypical heroes have emerged – supermarket workers, truck drivers and home delivery agents – only a few politicians get to be heroes (or villains) but in a much-reduced cast.

Narratology, the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways these affect human perception, also helps us make sense of the how different countries have been able to respond well if they can mobilise citizens’ trust in communities and (generally well-run) government.

Japan maintained economic activity longer than many Asian countries. However, as infections grew the Japanese government declared a state of emergency, but merely “encouraged” dramatic reductions of sales and movements. Unlike Australia and other nations, Japanese central and local governments did not set criminal sanctions and use the police to enforce restrictions. Instead they relied on appeals to narratives of civic virtue and consideration for others, underpinned by more instrumentalist power of ‘shaming’ some miscreant businesses by ‘warning’ the public if they remained open.

Historians tell us many tangible improvements come out of disasters. As Australia keeps trying to move into a phase of socio-economic revitalisation, a new narrative will emerge and could be framed by political and other leaders. The valuable lessons and experiences wrought by the pandemic can live on, enriching our post-pandemic lives. Alternatively, the learnings could be ‘quarantined’ to the time of crisis so that our post-pandemic lives are lived immune from the alternative storyline. We will be the poorer society if this second narrative succeeds.

Engaging with this new narrative world, and eventually emerging from it, creates an ongoing challenge, which neither health professionals, nor politicians, nor policymakers address in much depth. They place emphasis on “flattening the curve,” for viral infections and economic slowdown, rather than on the complexities of transportation, transformation, and trans-mutilation as depicted in narratology[1] (how humanity uses stories to understand the world) and as experienced by ordinary citizens.

An overlooked aspect of COVID-19 is the wider story told by this intense, gripping, yet temporary pandemic.[2] This extraordinary experience creates a new narrative world, in which citizens feel as if they have escaped into a different, distinctly encapsulated frame. Narrative worlds are coherent, representative situation models woven from the distinct physical and temporal settings, props, characters, and performances that make experiences stand out.[3] Examining a narrative world can help reveal important currents and issues in socio-economic and legal ordering, offering new insights for policymakers and researchers.

1. Learning from our new storyline

To illustrate, this pandemic makes us feel as if we are stuck in disaster movie, but with some interesting differences from the usual Hollywood[4] (or Bollywood[5]) narratives. Thinking first of the heroes, the main ones are those combating the invidious coronavirus pandemic: the health professionals, especially the government medical officers, the front-line doctors and nurses, but (curiously) not really the psychologists or pharmacists.

The other unexpected heroes are those that usually do not feature: the supermarket staff on checkouts or (even more invisibly) stacking shelves, the truck drivers, or those making or delivering takeaways.

A few politicians are heroes too (or villains), but in a much reduced cast. Only few leaders of governments are prominent. Opposition leaders struggle to remain relevant. Not to mention the hundreds of other parliamentarians that usually vie for and get some media attention.

Everyone else is like an extra: paid a little to do not very much over long periods! These multitudes merely provide a the backdrop for the heroes to develop the movie’s storyline.

Largely missing are other groups that sometimes feature in disaster movies, or indeed disaster management scenarios in real life. Belatedly, in Act II, the economists are surfacing more, as the health challenges from Act I become better known and outcomes are generally improving. Economists, including central bankers[6] who usually take a low profile,[7] need to work out how to maintain or revive economies amidst ongoing uncertainties over a cure or vaccine.

The jurists remain largely missing in action, despite the introduction of “executive rule” (with many parliaments suspended)[8] and limited access to courts (as traditional bastions for civil liberties). But data privacy lawyers have sometimes made an appearance, e.g. on safeguards for the new COVIDSafe tracing App being encouraged by the Australian government for contact tracing).[9]

We also rather rarely hear of the sociologists, philosophers, theologians and even political scientists, who usually help us to make broader sense of the societies we live in. Nor do we hear much from academics more generally, unless working with those developing vaccines or specialising in public health.[10] However, for example, some Australian universities are now trying to highlight their wider interdisciplinary expertise,[11] as the sector takes a large hit in revenue due to declines especially in foreign student enrolments.[12]

So the scenario we are living through and see unfolding around us offers an opportunity to test whether there is a reversal of “the death of expertise”. Tom Nichols reviewed that phenomenon in 2017, although focusing more on postmodern Western rather than Asian societies.[13] Seeing ourselves in a disaster movie, in this way, can also provide insights into which groups of experts figure more prominently in public policy making generally.

2. Other insights from and for Japan and other asian societies

The COVID-19 pandemic also highlights the resilience or perhaps revival of community norms in contemporary societies, even in highly developed Asia-Pacific economies. We often observe the importance of such norms from disaster management studies.[14]

In particular, in the short-term relief phase, examples of cooperative and altruistic behaviour tend to far outweigh selfishness or illegal behaviour (such as looting), contrary to the fears of Thucydides during the Athenian plague of 430BC.[15] This often extends to the post-disaster reconstruction phase, although politics and business as usual can then resurface, and effectiveness depends significantly on measures of “social capital” (such as participation in neighbourhood associations or religious groups) that vary across states and even localities. The impact of such community norms and institutions can also make a big difference in the disaster-planning phase.[16] Rural Taiwan’s effective cooperation against COVID-19[17] provides an interesting recent example for further comparative studies.

Japan’s response is also fascinating. It maintained economic activity longer than many Asian countries, although so for example did Taiwan and Korea.[18] Japan’s original policy stance has been criticised by some commentators, especially perhaps those sceptical about an earlier administration’s management of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami/radiation disasters. Yet Japan’s (still) low per capita death rate,[19] as well as another strong recent electoral result for the Abe Administration in 2019,[20] could explain this original policy stance. Nonetheless, as infections and testing grew,[21] the government declared a state of emergency last month — recently extended[22] — and “encouraged” dramatic reductions of sales and movements.[23]

Unusually, the central and local governments did not set criminal sanctions and use the police to enforce the restrictions. Instead they relied on appeals to narratives of civic virtue and consideration for others, albeit underpinned by the more instrumentalist power (and eventually practice) of “shaming” some miscreant businesses by “warning” the public if they remained open.[24]

An official reason for not mobilising the police was this would violate civil liberties enshrined in Japan’s (post-War, US-inspired) Constitution. Yet that, like other constitutions around the world, have provisions arguably justifying tougher interventions and sanctions.[25] One more likely explanation is that such measures, especially if introduced by a centre-right government, would remind its citizens (and neighbouring countries) of Japan’s militarist past – countering persistent efforts to substitute a narrative of “modern” freedoms and even pacifism.[26]

Another explanation is that Japanese leaders and policy-makers are aware that communitarian norms and respect for authority (and experts) remain comparatively strong. An analogy in Sweden, where leaders and policymakers still rely on community rather than legal norms despite a much higher death rate.[27]

Japan’s evolving experiment therefore raises another longstanding question: the importance of law in contemporary socio-economic ordering. Commentators have persuasively criticised an earlier “cultural relativist” theory that low civil litigation rates or less reliance on detailed contracts can simply be explained by “pre-modern” consensus-oriented or Confucian norms. Instead, they identified cost-benefit motivations for elites or individuals behind such outcomes.[28] Building on both storylines, the government itself has tried to promote a more active use of the legal system since the economic slowdown from the 1990s, including through wide-ranging justice system reforms.

Yet Japan seems to have reached a new equilibrium,[29] allowing an enhanced role for law while being cautious of its over-reach and conscious of the usefulness of maintaining strong communitarian values.[30] This balance, or tension, arguably becomes more visible in disaster situations in Japan, as also during the 2011 earthquake/tsunami/radiation disasters. It is therefore a topic worth comparing now across other Asian countries.

3. Emerging from the pandemic into another narrative world

Over the course of the pandemic narrative world’s end, it will transcend its extraordinary nature. Sociologists and historians remind us that many tangible improvements come out of disasters.[31] Yet the narrative world that originates in the pandemic will also feed or “bleed” into the everyday world. Citizens can either transform this bleed into benefits that enrich their lives, or “trans-mutilate” it so that their lives remain immune. Reflecting on the discourses that surround the COVID-19 pandemic, we observe that many people “seek bleed out.” They want triggers, they want change, and they want transformation.

Deconstruction of the pandemic’s narrative world can have a pronounced transformative effect on these people. After the COVID-19 pandemic is over, many citizens will reveal how their behaviour, feelings, and thoughts in the narrative world are leaving traces with them afterwards, because of the world’s absence. By keeping the portal wedged open, traces of the narrative world’s presence will remain with these COVID-19-survivors and spread discernibly into the wider everyday world. Coping with these traces will offer purgative relief from these distressing emotions.

COVID-19 will change us. It will force us to face personal demons; to ask ourselves essential questions about the nature of humanity, of love, of choice. It will teach us new things about hope, and about loss. We will feel like we leave parts of ourselves stumbling around in that disaster movie. In return, we will bring back home a new piece of our humanity, of our innocence. We will thus become more aware of other worldviews through the extraordinary experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of its absence, people will become more conscious of conspicuous consumption, of new relationships and sides to our identities.

However, challenged to negotiate the portal threshold between the narrative and the everyday world, not all citizens will gratefully receive these valuable aids to narratively sourced enculturation and instruction. Some COVID-19-survivors will not use narrative-provided meanings to further their worldviews and identity projects, and suit new consumption purposes and relationship statuses. Various survivors will fence off the narrative world of the pandemic, close the portal, and as such engage in strategies that trans-mutilate the narrative benefits passed onto them. The emotional distress they suffer will be cathartically powerless.

We wonder whether leaving our current novel narrative world will help consumers eventually. Will citizens suffer more after this episode, because they have experienced the benefits, yet are unable to escape their daily lives? We answer that citizens will suffer more soon after this narrative world has ended—but less eventually—if they analyse and take away the narrative benefits so as to transform the daily lives they can never escape.


Footnotes

[1] van Laer, Tom, Jennifer Edson Escalas, Stephan Ludwig, and Ellis A. van den Hende (2019), “What Happens in Vegas Stays on Tripadvisor? A Theory and Technique to Understand Narrativity in Consumer Reviews,” Journal of Consumer Research, 46 (2), 267–85. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucy067

[2] “for peripatetic (auto)didacticism is the homo narrans’s preferred mode of knowing” (italics in original): Joy, Annamma and John F. Sherry (2003), “Speaking of Art as Embodied Imagination: A Multisensory Approach to Understanding Aesthetic Experience,” Journal of Consumer Research, 30 (2), 259-82. doi: https://doi.org/10.1086/376802

[3] Gerrig, Richard J. (1993), Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading, New Haven, CT: Yale. doi: https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300054347/experiencing-narrative-worlds

[4] E.g. Contagion (2011), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1598778/

[5] E.g. Bhopal Express (1999), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0281656/

[6] https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/05/03/central-bankers-open-up-the-pandemic-box/

[7] Prof Annelise Riles, https://einaudi.cornell.edu/annelise-riles-secret-life-central-bankers

[8] E.g. my colleague A/Prof Andrew Edgar: https://auspublaw.org/2020/03/law-making-in-a-crisis-commonwealth-and-nsw-coronavirus-regulations/

[9] https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2020/04/28/experts-examine-the-covid-19-tracing-app.html

[10] As somewhat of an exception, as a blog funded by Australian universities, see https://theconversation.com/au/topics/coronavirus-5830.

[11] https://go8.edu.au/research/roadmap-to-recovery

[12] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-21/australian-universities-too-dependent-on-chinese-students-report/11427272

[13] https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-death-of-expertise-9780190469412?cc=au&lang=en&

[14] Nottage, Luke R. and Nasu, Hitoshi and Butt, Simon, Disaster Management: Socio-Legal and Asia-Pacific Perspectives (May 12, 2013). ASIA-PACIFIC DISASTER MANAGEMENT: COMPARATIVE AND SOCIO-LEGAL PERSPECTIVES, Simon Butt, Hitoshi Nasu and Luke Nottage, eds., Springer, pp. 1-58, 2014; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 13/36. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2263953

[15] Frank Furedi, Coronavirus: Pandemics remind us of the power of community  [“Adversity Begets Brave New World” in print version] The Australian (2-3 May 2020)

[16] Daniel Aldrich, https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo13601684.html

[17] https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/04/30/rural-taiwans-community-cooperation-against-covid-19/

[18] https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/03/30/south-korea-keeps-covid-19-at-bay-without-a-total-lockdown

[19] https://asiatimes.com/2020/04/why-japan-gets-no-covid-19-respect/

[20] https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/07/25/abe-and-the-ldp-remain-dominant-after-japans-upper-house-elections/

[21] https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/04/28/japans-timid-covid-19-response/

[22] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/04/japan-to-extend-state-of-emergency-covid-19-amid-fears-second-wave-could-cripple-tokyo-hospitals

[23] https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/05/03/national/japan-partially-relax-interpersonal-contact/#.Xq9dzpolGUY

[24] https://time.com/5813619/japan-coronavirus-lockdown/

[25] https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2020/04/14/commentary/japan-commentary/coronavirus-japans-constitution/#.Xq9e_ZolGUY

[26] See generally Gustafsson et al (2019) https://www-tandfonline-com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/doi/full/10.1080/09557571.2019.1623174

[27] https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2020/apr/21/sweden-covid-19-policy-trust-citizens-state

[28] Abe and Nottage (2006 1st ed) http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/ELECD/2006/184.html

[29] Wolff, Leon and Nottage, Luke R. and Anderson, Kent, Introduction: Who Rules Japan? (February 19, 2015). WHO RULES JAPAN? POPULAR PARTICIPATION IN THE JAPANESE LEGAL PROCESS, L. Wolff, L. Nottage and K. Anderson, eds, Edward Elgar, UK & USA, 2015; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 15/10. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2567552

[30] Nottage, Luke R., Translating Tanase: Challenging Paradigms of Japanese Law and Society (May 27, 2006). Victoria University of Wellington Law Review, Vol.39, No. 4, pp. 755-778, 2009; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 07/17. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=921932

[31] Furedi 2020, op cit.


This is part of a series of insights related to Coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on business.

Image: Louie Martinez

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