Europeans and Americans are very suspicious of corona tracking apps, whilst in Asia people immediately downloaded one. Why is this behavior so different?
Over in South Korea, they experiencing a minor second wave of the coronavirus. It comes after the country successfully managed a first experience with the highly contagious disease that spread from China into it’s country. One of the reasons why the government in Seoul was so successful is contact tracing.
The South Koreans have diligently downloaded a contact-tracing app and are able to carefully monitor where the virus is spreading. At the end of February already, South Korean app developer Bae Won-seok reached a milestone: his corona contact-tracing app, which serves as an example to developers in Europe and the US, had already been downloaded more than one million times.
But in South Korea, which would be hard hit after China as the second country, Bae’s team started work immediately after the first deaths.
In Europe and in the US, the development of a tracking app was put much later on the to-do list.
Apps like the Korean are very controversial in the West. Users of Bae’s app which is called Corona 100 receive an alert as soon as they come within a short distance of a location visited by an infected person. The app works on the basis of location data, something that in the Western world is understood as an excessive invasion of privacy.
Difference between East and West
To understand the difference between Asian and Western ideas about privacy, we must first go back 2,500 years in Asian and European history.
At that time, the Chinese philosopher Confucius laid the foundation for what is still the dominant thinking in China, Korea, Singapore and Japan. You do not define who you are as a person in your relationship to God or to yourself, but in relation to the people around you.
In Western countries it has been customary since the Ancient Greeks to think in terms of private and public. In that small difference lies the seed of Western ideas about privacy.
Such a difference in thinking leads to enormous cultural differences over time, as shown for example by dealing with a terminally ill mother in a family.
Europeans would tell her that she has lung cancer, for example, because she as an individual has the right to know that. In many Asian countries it is normal to keep the disease a secret from the mother herself.
This was clearly shown in the Lulu Wang film The Farewell last year.
The Asian way of dealing with the coronavirus also shows that the “I” is less important. During a lockdown, Europeans and Americans are the first to ask themselves: how is my freedom of movement limited? Can I go freely to the places I want to go?
In Asia, people just stay at home because they initially think from the ‘greater good’, not from their personal freedom of movement.
With Enlightenment thinking, this view began to shift even more in Europe. Man, partly after Descartes declared I think, therefore I am, was increasingly seen as a rational, autonomous being.
People became free to choose where to go and what information to share or not to share. Atheism was on the rise and so is individualism.
The United States is also built on those principles, so the right to privacy and freedom of expression is even greater there than in Europe and certainly much greater than in Asia.
So Apple and Google still have some work to do before their Corona tracing app will be downloaded en masse just as the South Korean one was.