The reasons for this cultural difference can, I believe, be explained through history and psychology. The sense of uncertainty and of the fragility of human life that I saw in Asia over the past two months is easy to explain if poverty and disease are still an everyday occurrence or at most two or three generations in the past. Often, that historical experience is reflected in public institutions: the lack of advanced social security and public healthcare systems forces Asians to contemplate in their daily lives the possibility that their world might suddenly collapse. In Europe the general psychology too often reflects the ideology of development, the idea that the most serious threats to individual happiness have been definitively conquered. Why worry about an epidemic if you have excellent public hospitals available more or less for free? What no one considered was that a virus could bring this perfect system to the point of breakdown.
Of course Europeans have their own nightmares and demons. But remember that the tragedy of the World Wars has been interpreted in political terms. They are a reminder of the dangers of nationalism and imperialism. The practical import of our recent history is to confirm our conviction in the rightness of our values, not to force us to doubt ourselves. And even the bloody history of the twentieth century in Europe has not changed the fact that we look at the world from what we think is a central position to which others can only aspire. Europeans have been taught by the whole course of modern history to think that they can guide or at least influence the rest of the world while being protected from events originating elsewhere. Would it be wrong to think that the new coronavirus is an event of unparalleled significance precisely because, for the first time, this worldview is shown to be unsustainable?
Everything looks so different now. The collective instinct common in other societies and the excessive precautions taken in response to the dangers of a pandemic and other fantastic threats—these emotions which the developed world used to regard as atavisms of less advanced societies take on a new meaning.