Cultural Differences and the Coronavirus

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

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 worldwide 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 dimensions, 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.

  Hierarchy Loyalty/Individualism Goal Orientation Predictability
China 80 28 68 25
Italy 52 77 70 76
USA 39 90 63 45
The Netherlands 34 81 17 50
France 65 75 49 88
Belgium 64 77 56 89

Let’s take one country at a time and assess their response against the Coronavirus in light of these dimensions. You will see a lot of cultural differences and the Coronavirus.

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: Hierarchy 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 relatively low score on this dimension makes that central decisions can be made fairly easy without the need for thinking much ahead about how to structure and/or implement these measures. This structuring and implementation plans will come later.

Italy

A good friend of mine 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 a high score on this dimension. This means that there should be a plan first before implementing any decision. 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 decisions were taken locally by local government institutions (and not top-down centrally like in China). In other words, this indicates a low score on Hierarchy.
  • Predictability: The radical Presidential decision led to 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 sports clubs and schools was still open. People were not following the government’s 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 decision?

  • 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 speed limit 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 relatively 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 this article about Cultural Differences and the Coronavirus

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 are 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 of this pandemic 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

[focus words: covid-19, Cultural Differences, and the Coronavirus, cultural differences]

 

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