The coronavirus is affecting people on a global level. However, the way each country has been treating it says a lot about their culture.
Let’s start with China, where, as we know, COVID-19 got its start. Chinese government both controls and censors the media. In 1975, Typhoon Nina claimed the lives of close to a quartermillion people. There was no mention anywhere in the press about this tragedy. It was as though nothing had happened. The government silencing anything that may destabilize the community has happened again, but this time, at the center of it is the coronavirus.
It took Beijing weeks to acknowledge this virus even existed. Once the Chinese masses realized that, in fact, a virus existed, officials had to decide what to say. They could admit to the government mismanagement and blame their superiors, or they could stay silent. The decision is obvious: choosing political loyalty over people’s safety. After all, Chinese culture is all about saving face.
The second major country to be affected by the coronavirus was South Korea. In contrast to most other cultures, South Koreans did not rush to the store to stock up on essentials, including toilet paper. They remained calm. Travel was only restricted to people coming from the epicenter of the virus in China, the Hubei region.
The South Korean government had a well-planned strategy for fighting this invisible virus: testing, closely monitoring the affected, and daily press conferences from the disease control and prevention agency. Citizens avoided crowds, closed businesses, and postponed unnecessary meetings without needing the government to force it upon them. Plus, masks are already part of daily life for many South Koreans.
So, what does this say about South Korean culture? It reinforces the idea that its citizens are prepared for sacrifice and self-discipline without government intervention.
And then there’s Italy. What cultural uniqueness can we find about the Italians that has made them more vulnerable? According to the University of Oxford, Italy has the second oldest population in the world, and the young tend to be close to the elderly, like their grandparents. It is not uncommon for younger generations to live with their parents, grandparents, or both.
The qualities that make Italians stand out from many other cultures is the love for affection, kissing on the cheeks, touching, the desire to be in close proximity to each other, and the desire to always be out socializing. These cultural traits have helped the virus cross-contaminate more than it has, for example, in China, or the US.
In Spain, the prime minister’s wife tested positive for coronavirus. Anyone would expect both he and his wife would not leave their house during a self-quarantine, right? Pues no. He went to congress as if no virus existed at all.
The Spanish culture is similar to that of Italy. Both tend to maintain closer distances with whomever they are talking with. They also tend to include the elder in their daily lives as well. While in the US your home is your castle, Spaniards love to be out and about for most of the day.
If you walk through most Spanish cities just before lunch or dinner, you have to navigate through thousands of people marching as they had a purpose, somewhere to be, when in reality, they are just enjoying walking. No wonder Spain had to enforce a government imposed lockdown so the coronavirus would not infect Spaniards on the streets.
Originally, Spaniards were not prepared to change their ways for the greater good. Why? Because cultures like the Italian and Spanish base their identity collectively. They identify by being part of a group. Spaniards are also obsessed with their finances. Even before the coronavirus, Spain’s unemployment numbers were one of the highest in Europe.
What is in the mindsets of Spaniards now? The number of unemployed in Spain rose to 3.5 million in March. This figure does not include temporary layoffs or laid off workers who have not yet filed for unemployment. A study conducted by Funcas between March 16 and March 20 shows a 9.1 point importance out of 10 regarding concern about the economy, compared to an 8.9 rating regarding concern of having been infected by the virus.
Finally, let’s praise Americans for following social distancing protocols. Compared to Italians and Spaniards, Americans were following social distancing before this phrase even existed. The other day I saw a lady carrying a yard stick just to make sure no one got within 6 feet of her.
However, while China, Italy, and Spain proved they were dealing with a pandemic, the US first dismissed coronavirus. Days later, the US decided an extreme situation called for extreme measures. Flights to and from Europe were to be halted. Lockdown has now been mandated for almost every city. For sure, high density cities like New York and San Francisco would benefit from this action. Others where people live far from each other and no one walks or comes into regular contact with others may not benefit as much from this measure.
Americans are entrepreneurial by nature. They maintain an individualistic and have an “I’ll do it my own way” kind of attitude. Americans don’t look at a group to make a decision. Every American makes his or her own choices. Culturally, this was reflected in how Americans reacted to the virus.
They protected themselves. They rushed to the store for basic needs. They are not about to look at a social-centered strategy, but at what is best for them individually. Individual rights are paramount. For example, gun stores refuse to close their doors taunting a constitutional right to bear arms.
I always say that culture plays a role in everything we do, and culture is playing a role in the coronavirus scenario. I do wish governments talked about the cultural aspects before passing down rules or laws.
Writen by: Michael Cárdenas, President