May 26, 2020

The coronavirus epidemic across cultures

Intercultural Management

How does culture influence our responses to the pandemic? Are all cultures equal in the face of the coronavirus?

The coronavirus epidemic across cultures

Although it should be remembered that culture is only one of the explanatory elements, its impact on the management of the epidemic is far from neutral.

Of course there are other factors like:

  • The experience of epidemic in the recent past: Korea has painful memories of SARS in 2015 and took strict measures very quickly to contain the epidemic.
  • The organization of the health system: Chile is very advanced in the treatment of respiratory diseases.
  • Geographic location: in the extreme west of Europe, the Portuguese and Irish saw the epidemic coming after Italy, Spain and France, and were able to anticipate it.
  • Demographics: older populations are more susceptible than younger populations, as in Africa.
  • Population density: the virus spreads faster in cities.
  • The political system: in a democracy, it is difficult to impose measures as draconian as in authoritarian regimes. The decentralized system of the United States and the contradictory messages of its President do not allow for a unified response. California closed on March 19, while Florida closed two weeks later.
  • The economic and social situation.

Similarities and differences in the handling of the pandemic

There is often an initial reaction of "denial" in many countries, followed by a gradual awareness of the risk, and finally the implementation of measures to encourage the population to keep their distance, wash their hands, stay at home, protect themselves and others.

But how to wash your hands with water cuts like in Cameroon, Congo, Gabon, ...? Confinement is difficult because one has to go out to look for something to live on: is it better to die of hunger or of coronavirus? In India, where promiscuity reigns, it is said that "to be confined is to die slowly". In Mexico, the most disadvantaged population does not confine itself for economic reasons. In the United States, although the country is richer, the idea that work comes before health is also widespread.

The differences in the management of the epidemic are most notable in the way measures are taken, communicated, enforced and respected. They are more or less early, strict, pragmatic. Communication is more or less transparent and has an impact on the population's confidence in the public authorities. Police controls are more or less severe depending on the regime and the self-discipline of the population.

The impact of culture on behavior

How does culture influence our responses to the pandemic? Do we put the individual or the group first? Who is responsible - the individual or the state? Is "tracking" an infringement of individual freedom or a measure to protect public health? By continuing to gather, are we taking the risk of spreading the epidemic or are we responding to a fundamental need to regroup and support each other in times of hardship?

Culture does indeed play a key role. If we look at Europe, where there is a certain homogeneity in political systems and no recent experience of epidemics, we see real differences, particularly between the North, the South and the Center. Belgium is a good example of the contrast between the more pragmatic North, more sensitive to homo economicus, and the more empathetic, more social South. As for Central Europe, it is more realistic and immediately reactive.

Let's try to identify the cultural dimensions and values at stake in the behavior of populations faced with the epidemic.

Interpersonal distance

Why is a distance of 1 meter required in France, 1.50 meters in Germany and the Netherlands, 2 meters in Central Europe? There is a different relationship to interpersonal distance in different countries. Latin cultures have a greater need for physical contact. The Hungarians recommend physical and not social distancing in order to continue common activities that can be managed at a distance.

The group as a unit of social life

Several generations often live together in Southern Europe, whereas they are more independent in Northern European countries. In Germany, children leave the parental home at an average age of 23.7 years, compared to 29.5 years in Spain and 30.1 years in Italy. When several generations live under the same roof, as in Italy, the elderly who look after the grandchildren are more exposed. In Central Europe, people protect their loved ones by putting them at a distance and in a safe place.

In Indonesia, staying at home and living outside the group prevents the expression of the basic values of society that allow everyone to feel safe.

Hierarchical distance

In Italy, the hierarchical distance is manifested by a strong adhesion of the population and a great submission to the forces of order...except in the churches! The Church is above political power.

Central Europe is characterized by a coordinated organization of hierarchical relations between experts, states, law enforcement agencies, groups and individuals, where everyone is in his place and fulfills his role.

The hierarchical character of Indian society partly explains the great license granted or self-granted to police officers in dealing with people who violate the confinement.

On the other hand, in societies where hierarchical distances are smaller, measures are less restrictive because self-discipline is de rigueur.

The relationship to the rule

Why are the measures stricter in Italy, Spain and France than in Northern Europe? This is probably linked to the relationship with the rule: in Germany, it is generally sufficient to issue recommendations for them to be followed. The Nordic countries, Sweden in particular, are apparently even more moderate: they seem to have issued very few restrictive measures.

In the Latin countries, however, without the fear of the police and the fine, it is more complicated. Denouncing one's neighbor who does not respect the confinement is civic sense for some, denunciation for others.

Can we then speak of a Portuguese exception? The confinement was not accompanied by sanctions or a travel certificate. For the Prime Minister, "the Portuguese are so disciplined that repression is useless.

The same distinction is made between North and Latin America, with one exception: Chile, where the application of the rule is stricter.

Individual responsibility in the United States includes respect for the rules; it is a civic duty to notify the relevant authority if the rule is not respected because it is an obstacle to community life and to the freedom of each individual.

The conception of freedom

This relationship to the rule leads us to the conception of freedom, which differs greatly from one culture to another.

« One person's freedom ends where another's begins »

illustrates well the logic of freedom within the rule, specific to the British who are free to self-manage during the period of confinement. In the United States, the value of work and the freedom to be or not to be confined are emphasized.

In Finland, the values of independence and freedom are fundamental as well as the forest and outdoor activities are necessary. In Hungary, the will to safeguard the country's financial freedom is based on national solidarity and trust in the government.

In China, collective security is more important than individual freedom. In Wuhan, the epicenter city of Covid 19, all the technological tools of surveillance, tracking, tracing, and gridding have been deployed, to the detriment of individual freedoms for the good of the community.

For the Koreans, who use identical means, respecting the instructions allows them to gain freedom. Here we find the influence of Confucius: freedom is gained with age and respect for the rules.

Religion and spirituality

In some countries, the crisis highlights irrational perceptions. In India, potentially infected people are encouraged to treat themselves by ingesting cow urine and applying dung to their bodies.

In Mexico, health care workers are suspected of spreading the virus, and the use of amulets to invoke God's protection is increasing. Some Cameroonians have more faith in traditional medicine and question the existence of the virus.

The Church has never been so present in the daily life of Hungarians: Masses are becoming places of creativity, the faithful gather in their cars, priests organize theological debates on social networks.

The relationship with death

This pandemic reintroduces the place of death in our cultures. In Mexico, the relationship to fate and death is marked by fatalism: we suffer the events and there is no point in fighting. In Cameroon and other African countries, death is a rupture and someone must be designated as the culprit, which is very well described by Éric de Rosny in Les yeux de ma chèvre. In Indonesia, patients escape from hospitals during their treatment to avoid a lonely death without prayer from those around them.

« In the fight for life, we have forgotten to accompany death »,

reminds Damien Le Guay.


And to end on a touch of humor that the Belgians are fond of, here is the manneken-pis well protected!

After Covid-19

To conclude, we can ask ourselves how the "after Covid-19" will be. Will the relationship with the other be transformed?

Signs of recognition have changed in some cultures, signs of peace have become signs of defiance. The questioning of strong symbolic gestures can provoke an anthropological transformation; intercultural relations will undoubtedly be modified, but in what direction: leveling, rapprochement, mistrust, cleavage, etc.?

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