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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Cultural responses to the coronavirus | An example from China

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 China. A special thanks to our sinologist and trainer Lilian, who co-created this article.

China – Mixed messages from the top 

Wuhan, where it all started

At the beginning of the year, the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan city. The country proved to be swift and skillful when putting virtually the whole country into lock-down. The Chinese government poured billions into society to build a number of new emergency hospitals. They also developed technologies that could aid detection of the virus and help control mass surveillance.

Strict measures 

No one (depending on region or city) was allowed to leave their homes. If someone was detected as having the virus, the whole apartment building could be cordoned off. Tests, travel history, temperatures, health checks and the use of contact tracing technology were used to systematically find and isolate infected people. 

Culture and corona. China responds to corona by detecting fever.

Although this is an intrusive approach, there was an exceptionally high degree of understanding and acceptance of such measures (WHO) by the population. A degree of acceptance that cannot be as easily achieved in all cultures, as we will see in the article about America next week.

The effect of hierarchy and power

Before the lock-down was in place, several doctors in Wuhan had already sounded alarm bells that something was seriously wrong. Rather than paying attention to their warnings, local leaders arrested them and made them publicly admit to having spread false rumors. 

When one of these doctors (Doctor Li Wenliang) died as a result of the virus, Chinese anger about the cover up started to spill over onto social media. 

The connection with cultural dimensions

China has a strong collectivist culture which means that people have a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society. Individuals expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them and they provide their unquestioning loyalty in return (Hofstede). 

In times like these, you can clearly see the preference of the Chinese by looking at the high rate of acceptance and obedience to the rules and measures imposed by the government. You can also see it in the nature of the measures taken; the emphasis is less on the individuals’ autonomy or privacy and more focused towards the greater good of a larger group. 

China scores high on power distance

Furthermore, it is visible that the Chinese exhibit the cultural dimension of power distance to a considerable degree. They accept the hierarchical order in which everybody has a place. More specifically, they accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. However, when the Chinese believe something is not done in the best interest of the population, they will speak up.

Hierarchy or power distance is a cultural dimension on which China scores highly. Influence of hierarchy and power on the discovery of corona.

The high degree of power distance is clearly shown by the fact that Doctor Li Wenliang was arrested and forced to publicly admit to spreading false rumors. However, when the government did not listen to the warnings of the doctor(s) and this information came out, people reacted with anger. This reaction is something that you would not readily expect in a collectivist society that places a high value on hierarchy. 

Interestingly, even though Chinese culture is characterized by a high degree of power, the government responded by issuing a formal apology to the relatives of Li Wenliang. This example indicates the complexity of culture and shows that numerous factors can have an impact which can lead to different behavior than you might expect. 

Become a cultural expert yourself

Would you like to know more about effective behaviour in international business settings like China? Check our country or expat courses here.

Also read: