The Coronavirus Epidemic Across Cultures
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Culture & Countries
The Coronavirus Epidemic Across Cultures
May 26, 2020

Covid et cultures

Are All Cultures Equal When It Comes to Coronavirus?

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

Of course there are other factors like: 

  • The epidemic experience in the recent past: Korea has a painful memory of SARS in 2015 and very quickly took strict measures to contain the epidemic. 
  • The organization of the health system: Chile is very advanced in the treatment of respiratory diseases. 
  • The location: in the far west of Europe, the Portuguese and Irish saw the epidemic arrive after Italy, Spain, France, and were able to anticipate. 
  • Demography: elderly populations are more sensitive than young populations as in Africa. 
  • Population density: the virus spreads faster in cities. 
  • The political system: in a democracy, it is difficult to impose such draconian measures 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 went into lockdown on March 19, while Florida closed two weeks later. 
  • The economic and social situation. 

Similarities and differences in dealing with the pandemic 

We often see a first reaction of “denial” in many countries, then a gradual awareness of the risk, and finally the implementation of measures to encourage the population to respect distances, to wash their hands, to stay at home. To protect oneself and to protect others as well. 

But how do you wash your hands with water cuts that’s happening in Cameroon, Congo, Gabon,…? Containment is difficult because you have to go out to find something to live on: is it better to die of hunger or of the coronavirus? “To confine is to die slowly,” they say in India, where there is great promiscuity. In Mexico, the most disadvantaged population is not confined for economic reasons. In the United States, although the country is richer, the idea that work comes before health is also widely held. 

The differences in the management of the epidemic are most notable in the way actions are taken, communicated, enforced and enforced. They are more or less precocious, strict, pragmatic. Communication, more or less transparent, has an impact on the population’s confidence in public authorities. Police checks are more or less severe depending on the regimes and the self-discipline of the population.  


The Impact of Culture on Behaviour

How does culture influence our reactions to the pandemic? Do we prioritize the individual or the group? Who is responsible, the individual or the state? Is “tracing” 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 basic need to come together and support each other in hardship? 

 Culture indeed plays a primordial role. If we look at Europe where there is a certain homogeneity in political systems and the lack of recent experience with an epidemic, we see real differences, especially between the North, the South and the central regions. Belgium is a good illustration 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 us try to identify the cultural dimensions and values ​​at play in the behavior of populations in the face of the epidemic. 

Interpersonal Distance

Why are we asking to respect a distance of 1 meter in France, 1.50 meters in Germany and the Netherlands, 2 meters in Central Europe? There is a different relationship to interpersonal distance depending on the country. Latin cultures are more in need of physical contact. Hungarians recommend physical rather than social distancing to continue manageable common activities from a distance. 

The Group as a Unit of Social Life

Several generations often live together in southern Europe, while they are more independent in the countries of northern Europe. In Germany, children leave the parental home on average at 23.7 years old, compared to 29.5 years old in Spain and 30.1 years old in Italy. When several generations live under the same roof as in Italy, the elderly who take care of small children are more at risk. In Central Europe, we protect our loved ones by keeping 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 make everyone feel safe. 

Hierarchical Distance

In Italy, the hierarchical distance is manifested by strong support from the population and great submission to the police … 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 has their place and fulfils their role.

The hierarchical nature of Indian society partly explains the great license granted or self-granted to police officers in the treatment of persons violating confinement. 

In contrast, in societies where hierarchical distances are smaller, the measures are less restrictive because self-discipline is required. 

The Relationship to the Rule

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

Whereas in Latin countries, without the fear of the police and the imposing of fines, it is more complicated. Denouncing your neighbor who does not respect confinement is civic sense for some, denunciation for others. 

Can we therefore speak of a Portuguese exception? The lockdown was not accompanied by sanctions or a travel certificate. For the Prime Minister, “the Portuguese are so disciplined that repression is unnecessary”. 

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

Individual responsibility in the United States includes following the rules; It is a civic duty to warn the authority concerned if the rule is not respected because it hinders community life and the freedom of everyone. 

The Conception of Freedom

This relationship to the rule leads us to approach the conception of freedom, very different from one culture to another. 

 “The freedom of some stops where that of others begins” illustrates the logic of freedom within the respect of the rule, specific to the British who are free to manage themselves during the period of confinement. In the United States, we emphasize the value of work and the freedom to be or not to be confined. 

In Finland, the values ​​of independence and freedom are fundamental just as forests and outdoor activities are necessary. In Hungary, the desire 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 of Covid19, all technological tools for surveillance, monitoring, tracing, and gridding have been deployed, to the detriment of individual freedoms for the good of the community. 

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

Religion and Spirituality

In some countries, the crisis sheds light on the irrational perception of things. In India, people who are potentially infected are encouraged to treat themselves by ingesting cow urine and applying dung to the body. 

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

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

The Relationship to Death

This pandemic reintroduces the place of death in our cultures. In Mexico, the relationship to fate and death is marked by fatalism: we endure events and there is no point in fighting. In Cameroon and other African countries, death is a rupture and a culprit must be named, which is very well described by Éric de Rosny in The Eyes of my Goat. In Indonesia, patients escape hospitals during their treatment to avoid a solitary death without the prayer of those around them. 

“In the fight for life, we have forgotten the accompaniment of death,” recalls Damien Le Guay. 

And to end with a touch of humor that Belgians love, 

here is the manneken-pis well protected! 


After Covid-19 

To conclude, one may wonder what will be “after Covid-19″. Will the relationship with others change? 

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

Article written in collaboration with Akteos consultants, leader of intercultural training (Isabelle Lecomte, Bernadette Labéribe, Margarita Celedon, Sylvie Day, Katja Ingman, Csilla Puskás, Isabelle Sol-Dourdin, …) 

About author



Since 2003, Akteos has guided its clients in a multi-faceted world where globalization and new communication technologies bring cultures together and confront our values. With its 30 correspondents around the world and its 300 intercultural consultants, Akteos offers training courses in more than 100 countries as well as in management, communication and international development.

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