Covid-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China, and spread quickly around the world. China’s Asian neighbors—who are closely linked by complex ties of trade, migration, tourism, and cultural and educational exchange—were among the first to both feel the impact of the disease, as well as among the first to devise strategies to stop its spread. As borders and schools closed, trade shrank, and markets were shuttered, East Asian countries experienced shocks similar to those that struck other regions of the world. While democracies like South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan shared the struggles of the United States and European countries in trying to create strategies that would stop the epidemic while preserving individual rights, China and Vietnam had a somewhat freer hand in compelling cooperation with government decrees. Interestingly, Asian countries have so far had greater success in stopping the spread of the pandemic, with lower per capita infection rates and lower death rates. The Covid-19 pandemic in Asia has lifted the veil on a variety of structural problems and raised numerous questions for research.

Prospects for international relations in Asia were already cloudy when Covid-19 burst onto the scene and exacerbated the already heightened political tension between states. At a time when unified action is essential for dealing with the global pandemic, the tensions particularly between the United States and China have called into question the international organizations and treaties designed in the postwar era to deal with such crises.

Domestically, the closure of schools and the halt of economic activity has revealed major problems in societies across the globe and challenged current social support structures. For instance, the Japanese government has pressed for greater labor participation by women for more than a decade. Those policies seemed very successful until the pandemic revealed the fragility of the base upon which they were built. In some countries, efforts to use IT for telework have been stymied by underdeveloped public IT infrastructure, which has not been updated for many years, as well as by work cultures that rely on face-to-face meetings to get things done. In the case of South Korea, where the government has made use of sophisticated IT apps to trace infected individuals, the technology compromised privacy when the sexuality of some LGBT+ people were mistakenly made public. In countries across Asia, public health systems have also been challenged as they struggled to deal with the pandemic, devising strategies to meet the institutional and legal constraints in their own domestic systems.

This theme will explore the range of issues that Covid-19 introduced and exacerbated in East Asia. We will explore the impact of the virus on international relations, the varying national attempts to use technological innovation in the battle against the virus, and the impact of the pandemic on work, family life, educational institutions, and domestic politics.

This theme of our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” essay series has been curated by Nicole Restrick Levitt, associate program director of the Abe Fellowship; Linda Grove, consulting director of the Abe Fellowship; Reina Chelberg, program coordinator of the Abe Fellowship; and Briyanna Brinson, program assistant of the Abe Fellowship.