Berlitz Blog

Published : Wed, Sep 9, 2020 4:00 PM GMT

Differing responses to COVID-19; culture is a factor

People around the world continue having questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, including which countries are best responding to the COVID-19 crisis, which are the worst, and why.

One frequently overlooked “why” is cultural differences.

“I think culture matters tremendously in terms of response, as well as outcome,” Yasheng Huang, professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and director of the MIT-China program, told MIT News.

Sometimes these differences are mistakenly seen as unimportant.

For example, French grocery buying may have helped the spread of COVID-19 there. In some countries people buy groceries once a week. But in France they go out to buy their food every day, Western University cultural geographer Jeffrey Hopkins told CBC News. This means less isolation, and more contact with other people.

“One way to think about culture is, people act on certain norms without thinking about those norms every day,” Hopkins said.

This is clearly true in China, and some other Asian countries. People started wearing face masks late last year, long before a government mandate. Part of that also was their experiences with SARS.

The Japanese have received praise for their overall response. One reason, their cultural fixation on cleanliness, including frequently washing their hands. Japanese also ask people to remove shoes when entering homes.

Closer to home, response to COVID-19 varies dramatically between Canada and the U.S.

A panel of expert epidemiologists gave Canada a solid “B” for its COVID-19 response. The U.S. received an “F.”

Both the U.S. and Canada are considered to have highly individualistic cultures, stressing personal rights, independence, and individual achievements over the groups.

However, Canada is a much more inclusive country.

For example, Canadians welcome newcomers and has actually made inclusion a federal policy. Canada even offers a “Welcome Refugees” program providing help and assistance to newcomers.

Partisan politics and ethnic differences were pretty much abandoned as Canadians became more united against the COVID-19 threat. Unlike the U.S., local leaders supported Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

According to the MIT News, for culture to connect with policy there has to be public trust in government. Sciencedirect also points out, “one cultural aspect influencing human behavior is political polarization.”

This describes the U.S. effort. While Canadians and politicians united, the U.S. was polarizing at an astonishing rate.

State governors clashed with U.S. President Donald Trump, and often ignored his directives. Governors attacked each other as they competed for medical equipment such as ventilators.

It’s probably not coincidental that in polls, Canadians are more satisfied with their country’s response to COVID-19 than are U.S. residents.

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