Cultural Differences and the Corona-virus

Are you also sick and tired of all the news about the Corona virus or the Covid-19 virus?

Well, I can imagine. Here in Belgium, where I live, we’re in a semi-lockdown, as in many countries around the world. So from a distance it seems like the whole world unites and takes the same measures.

In this article I want to shine some light on the cultural aspects of battling this world-wide crisis.

The Main Purpose of Containment

The main reason for containing this virus has all to do with not overstretching our health care systems. As the graph below clearly illustrates.

cultural differences and coronavirus

With the approach of containment or lock-down the hope is that the peak will be less high, with the trade-off that the whole episode will take longer before it is over.

Four Primary Dimensions of Culture

In an earlier article on this website, I’ve written about the four primary dimensions of culture:

  1. Hierarchy
  2. Loyalty (or Individualism)
  3. Goal orientation
  4. Predictability

In this article I want to link the different responses to Corona to any or more of these dimensions. If you’re not familiar with the core characteristics of these dimension, you can read more about them here.

The Focus on Six Countries

In order to keep the discussion more relevant and “containable” I will focus on 6 countries:

  • China
  • Italy
  • The USA
  • The Netherlands
  • France
  • Belgium

Below you can find the relative scores on the first four dimensions of culture of these countries.

 HierarchyLoyalty/IndividualismGoal OrientationPredictability
China80286825
Italy52777076
USA39906345
The Netherlands34811750
France65754988
Belgium64775689

Let’s take one country at a time and assess their response against the Coronavirus in light of these dimensions.

cultural differences and corona 2

China

In China the response was quite fast and drastic; complete cities, regions, and provinces were locked down.

The reason China was so fast and rigorous has to do with two dimensions: Hierachy and Predictability.

  • Hierarchy: With a very centralized government structure (a score of 80 on hierarchy) it is/was relatively easy to take such a massive decision. Also because further down the government lines it still remains the same hierarchy: the boss (=the government in this case) decides and dictates.
  • Predictability: The relative low score on this dimension makes that central discisions can be made fairly easy without the needs for thinking much ahead about how to structure and/or implement these measures. This structuring and implementation plans will come later.

Italy

As a good friend from Rome, Italy, keeps telling me: “Italy is a country in constant chaos“. And he’s got a point: Italy has had 65 governments since January 1946.

And this also showed in the response as it was made towards this global virus. The three dimensions involved here are:

  • Hierarchy: You would think Italy could make the same swift changes and interventions as China has done. But no. That was not the case. Why not? Because of the relatively high score on the second dimension; Loyalty/Individualism.
  • Loyalty/Individualism: The combination of a high score on hierarchy and a high score on loyalty/individualism means that you will get little “islands” or “castles of power“. In other words, people (and in this case political parties and politicians) will put their own agenda first (individualistic gain) over the national interest.
  • Predictability: Last but not least there is the high score on this dimension. This means that there should be a plan first before implementing any decsion. Without the plan things become chaotic. And they have, which has led to the first European shutdown country.

The USA

The US, or rather President Trump, took the radical decision to close all flights from the 26 Shengen countries and later closed American airspace also for Ireland and the UK. Travelers from China and Iran were already not welcome earlier.

This unprecedented decision from the US President shows just how much power he has. But he only did that: stopped flights from entering the US. Which dimensions are at play here?

  • Hierarchy: The US President is a very powerful man/position. But this time Trump only decided to close US air space. No other measures were taken. As of March 16, 2020 the mayors of New York and Los Angeles decided to close restaurants, bars, and cafes. In other words these decision were taken locally by local government institution (and not top-down centrally like in China). In other words this indicates a low score on Hierarchy.
  • Predictability: The radical Presidential descision led to a complete and total chaos at airports in the US and in the European countries. There was no plan to streamline any of this. Americans generally don’t need a plan. Like the sports apparel company Nike says: “Just Do It“.

The Netherlands

The Dutch were one of the last Western-European countries to take decisive action towards containing the virus. Saturday 14 & Sunday 15 March 2020 everything from restaurants to bars to sportclubs to schools were still open. People were not following the government advice to keep a so called “Social Distance” from each other.

Even worse: there were a lot of visitors from Belgium where everything closed down a couple of days before that. Corona was having a ball…

Why did it take the Dutch government so long to take a descision?

  • Hierarchy/Individualism: In general the Dutch are all in favor of an organized society and rules in general. Except… when it comes to the individual person. In other words, the 100 km/h speedlimit is for everyone, except for me… So imposing rules in the Netherlands is difficult, because of the low score on Hierarchy and the high score on Individualism (Loyalty to self).
  • Goal Orientation: The Dutch score quite low on this dimension. A low score indicates that a country/culture isn’t goal oriented, but much more process oriented. In other words, the goal is less important than the road towards the goal. The implication or characteristic that goes with this is that there is a lot of consensus seeking going on. People talk, talk, talk, and talk a bit more. The Dutch share this process orientation with the Scandinavian countries.

In other words “You can tell a Dutch, but you can’t tell ‘m much“.

France/Belgium

The French took a more staged approach to taking measures. First the schools closed and a couple of days later they decided to close cafes and restaurants. Dimensions?

  • Hierarchy: The relative high score on this dimension makes/made it possible to enforce the first level of measures easily. Followed by the second level of measures.
  • Predictability: A plan needs to be in place. Different from the US, where the President’s decision caused chaos, the French took some time to come up with a plan. And they bought themselves some more time to make plans for the second wave of measures.

Where does Belgium fit in here? If you compare the scores of France and Belgium, you will notice that there are no significant differences between the two countries (any difference of more than 10 points is significant).

It was reported on the Belgium news that probably the French speaking part/politicians were heavily influenced by what happened in France, which in turn influenced the Belgian federal government to take very similar decisions.

To Finalize

As you can see, even how the world is fighting this pandemic is not culturally neutral.

I just read on the news that Spanish police is forcing people to go to their homes if they’re on the beach or just walking in the streets without a good reason; Spain scores 58 on Hierarchy… This would never work in the Netherlands…

Looking for a Podcast Guest

I’m still looking for a podcast guest that can shed some more light on the cultural aspects on this pandamic and/or on past global outbreaks and how different cultures/countries dealt with it differently.

If you are that person or if you know someone, please contact me here and will gladly follow it up! Thanks!

Please leave your comments below. Thank you!

Last update: March 20, 2020

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