Cultural Responses to the coronavirus | an example from America

Since the coronavirus spread outside the Chinese borders it has become a pandemic. As a result, it has demanded the attention and immediate action of almost every country in the world. How countries deal with a crisis like this differs per country and per culture. 

When you look more closely at the nature of the governments’ policies, the ways in which they are communicated to the public and the transparency of the communication, it becomes clear that these approaches are all culturally determined. 

How does your country deal with the government’s measures and approaches to COVID-19?

This week we will discuss the effects of cultural dimensions on the corona crisis in America. A special thanks to our American expert and trainer Lisa Ross-Marcus who co-created this article with me.

America – A culture that values ‘I’ over ‘We’

Different policies per state

America is divided into 50 states and there has been no unified national plan to control the pandemic in the USA. The 50 states have each been left to devise their own strategies, competing for scarce protective gear and medical supplies among themselves while leaving the public confused by conflicting information.

Culture and corona in America, the effect of culture on handling a crisis like the corona virus. Individualism.
Map of the 50 states of the United States of America.

Lack of social safety nets 

In a culture that values the ‘I’ over the ‘We’ there is not a strong emphasis on social safety nets. Consequently, it is not a given that everyone has access to health care and sufficient unemployment benefits. This has drastically increased the number of coronavirus cases in the USA because many people cannot afford to seek medical care when they need it. They have been forced to continue working and spreading the virus, just to be able to pay their bills.

Protests against the lock down 

Despite the soaring numbers of Covid-19 cases, many Americans have rejected the notion that the government can order them to stay indoors and to shut down their businesses. When it comes down to wearing protective masks, many feel it is their fundamental right to make their own choice. 

In some places, like the state of Michigan, these passions have run so high that people took to the streets in protest. Many brandished their (legally owned) guns in front of the state capitol building and clamored to be ‘liberated’ from the tyranny of the state governor, who decreed that the state should remain on lock-down for everyone’s safety. 

Protest on corona virus lockdown in America. Stop the tyranny. Open Michigan. Freedom is valued greatly in the individualist culture of America.
Source (the New York Times) 

America in relation to the dimension of individualism

American culture places a strong value on individualism. This means that people prefer a loosely knit social framework in which people are free to pursue their own goals and are only expected to take care of themselves and their immediate families (Hofstede). Individual rights are deeply cherished, so it’s not surprising that many Americans have interpreted strict lockdown measures as a threat to their freedom.

With the exception of the heroism of healthcare and other essential workers, it is the strong cultural focus on the individual instead of the group which created some resistance to unifying the country behind the idea of personal sacrifice for the common good. 

The recent nationwide protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd, highlighting the Black Lives Matter movement have shaken up many of these ideas. There is currently a surge in solidarity among Americans (which has fanned out globally), to fight for an inclusive society where responsibility for the well-being of all is a shared goal. It will be interesting to see how this movement could create a cultural shift in American life in the long term.

Become a culture expert yourself

Would you like to know more about effective behavior in international business settings such as America? Check our country or expat courses here.

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