Heike Holbig

Navigating the Dual Dilemma between Lives, Rights and Livelihoods: COVID-19 Responses in China, Singapore, and South Korea

Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft | 2023

  • Abstract

    The COVID-19 pandemic has created a dual dilemma for governments worldwide: between the protection of lives and of individual rights, and more long-term between safeguarding lives and preserving livelihoods. Taking a dynamic approach, this paper asks how different regime types have navigated this dual dilemma by adjusting their pandemic-response strategies over the course of time. Three case studies from East Asia are selected to represent different regime types—autocratic China, hybrid Singapore, and democratic South Korea—that share experience with previous coronavirus episodes. Comparing the three cases between late 2019 to mid-2022, remarkable differences are found in the adaptability of response strategies. China’s authoritarian regime appeared to be at a clear strategic advantage due its indifference toward individual rights during the first COVID-19 wave. In the longer run, however, the picture has changed substantially. While China has exclusively prioritized the protection of lives, fixating on its “Zero-COVID” strategy, Singapore has attached at least equal weight to sustaining livelihoods, experiencing a drawn-out zigzagging before pivoting to a “Living with COVID” strategy. Among the three cases, only South Korea has made consistent efforts to protecting individual rights while gradually recalibrating lives and livelihoods. Over time, the high degree of responsiveness of South Korea’s democratic regime has allowed for a relatively smooth transition to coexisting with the virus. The paper concludes with some lessons that European democracies might learn from pandemic responses in East Asia in a longitudinal perspective.


    Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft




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