Op-Ed: President Trump is obsessed with Asia for all the wrong reasons

President Trump has an Asia problem. As much as he would like to hold the United States out as the example of how to effectively handle the coronavirus, places such as South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan keep showing him up.

Take the press conference he held on Monday (before stomping out in annoyance at what he called “nasty” questioning from reporters, including one who was Asian American). The event was meant to celebrate what he considered a benchmark. At the briefing, Trump stood alongside a banner reading “America Leads the World in Testing,” and he crowed about how the United States has now surpassed South Korea in per capita testing.

But that misses the point entirely.

South Korea ramped up testing at the beginning of the outbreak, which enabled it to get ahead of the virus’ spread with contact tracing and targeted social distancing. Consequently, it has less need of widespread testing today. As Philip Bump put it in the Washington Post: “Boasting about how we’re continuing to expand our lead in tests completed over South Korea is a little like bragging about how many more burglars you’ve arrested than a country where there aren’t many burglaries.”


Other Asia success stories must vex Trump as well. Hong Kong, for example, has had four deaths, Singapore 20, Taiwan seven.

South Korea and the U.S. diagnosed their first COVID-19 patients on the same day in January. Since then, South Korea has had 259 deaths; the U.S. more than 83,000. Adjusted for population, Americans have died at a rate nearly 50 times that of South Koreans.

Yet rather than learn from these successes, the president pointedly pooh-poohed them, the same way he did when Bong Joon Ho won the best director Oscar, and Trump dismissed “Parasite” as “some movie from South Korea.” At a campaign rally shortly after the movie’s six-Oscar (including best picture) win, he demanded, “What the hell is that?”

Today, anyone in South Korea, regardless of citizenship can get tested in less than 10 minutes with the results texted to them the next day. When a person in an apartment building is diagnosed, a testing center is immediately set up in the building.

Jung Eun-kyeong, director of South Korea’s CDC, holds daily press conferences that are straightforward — and without extravagant boasts and promises. Instead of contradictory and inaccurate information, there is only one message from the government, and the populace, to an extraordinary degree, has accepted it willingly.

South Korea has also mastered self-isolation. The country is a democracy, like the U.S., where no one is forced to quarantine, but the government makes it easy to stay in by providing a “care package” that includes beautiful fresh produce, Spam (a treat in Korea), masks, hand sanitizer, instructions on how to dispose of garbage, a pep talk — and toilet paper, again regardless of citizenship status. A caseworker checks in twice a day.

Dr. Jung was able to persuade a populace to allow tracking via credit cards, cellphone GPS and other methods, including getting a church to give up the records of more than 200,000 members for the purposes of public health — a level of organization and trust the U.S. cannot match. If a person with COVID-19 leaves isolation, a text alert is issued, alerting those nearby. Tracing an infected person’s contacts is so rigorous that a running joke in South Korea is that you can’t even die in peace from the coronavirus because the government will still track you down.

South Korea not only bent its curve; it did so without travel bans or shutting down its economy. Seeing photos of unclogged L.A. freeways and an empty Times Square in Manhattan, the New York Times Seoul bureau chief, Choe Sang-Hun, told me, Seoul “has never been a ghost town. Fewer people on the streets and subways. … Otherwise life goes on.” This shows that the economic devastation in the U.S. — April’s 14.7% unemployment rate is the worst since the Great Depression, with 20.5 million jobs lost — could also have been mitigated with a proper response.


During those precious early weeks, while South Korea was feverishly preparing, Trump was focusing on his most reliable brand: racism. Once the results of the pandemic could not be tweeted away, the administration turned to scapegoating Asians, speaking to the press about the “China virus,” comparing the pandemic to Pearl Harbor, invoking age-old racist tropes about Asians sneaking and invading. An email chain among governmental health experts was called “Red Dawn,” a nod to a movie about a group of young people trying to save their hometown from North Korean invasion.

And even as Trump boasts about finally expanding testing to something approaching what is needed, another key element to Asia’s success is missing: systematic contact tracing. At my workplace, Columbia University, we were told during the early days of the pandemic that “someone in the community” had tested positive. But was it a student? A colleague? How were we supposed to assess the need to self-isolate without information?

Here, we aren’t allowed to know if someone we’ve had contact with has COVID-19 because of privacy issues. But in South Korea, people are willing to give up their privacy for the common good — and trust that their government won’t illegally harvest and sell their data.

My cousin Hyunmie, a nurse who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea as an adult 31 years ago, when she was 24, has had reason to think about the differences in the country of her birth versus the country she chose. Her entire family of four came down with the coronavirus. She picked her case up at work. Then, her daughter brought home the virus to Los Angeles after having been infected at college in Boston. Hyunmie’s husband, a truck driver, suddenly worsened and spent 13 days on a ventilator fighting for his life.


It’s not lost on Hyunmie that in South Korea her family would likely have been spared this suffering altogether. Korean nurses wear negative-pressure space suits to prevent virus transfer; some American nurses have had to resort to wearing garbage bags.

The fact that the U.S. has finally ramped up its testing capacity is progress, I suppose. But if in the beginning the president had studied the Asian model instead of charting his own ham-handed course, where might we be now?

Marie Myung-Ok Lee, author of the forthcoming novel “The Evening Hero,” teaches fiction at Columbia University, where she is writer in residence at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. @MarieMyungOkLee