Death tolls don’t lie. The most striking disparity in COVID-19 fatalities to date is between East Asian countries, where the total number of deaths per million inhabitants is consistently below 10, and much of the West, where the numbers are in the hundreds.

For example, Japan has so far reported 7.8 deaths per million, followed by South Korea (5.8), Singapore (4.6), China (3.2) and, most remarkably of all, Vietnam with zero deaths. By contrast, Belgium now has 846 confirmed deaths per million, and the United Kingdom has 669, followed by Spain (608), Italy (580) and the United States (429).

What accounts for this extraordinary difference? The answers are complicated, but three possible explanations stand out. First, none of the East Asian states believe that they have “arrived,” much less achieved the “end of history” at which they regard their societies as being the apotheosis of human possibility. Second, East Asian countries have long invested in strengthening government institutions instead of trying to weaken them, and this is now paying off. And, third, China’s spectacular rise is presenting its regional neighbors with opportunities as well as challenges.