The cultural dilemma in the face of COVID-19 regulations

By Patrick Livings

COVID-19 regulations have changed the daily lives of people, shrunk the economy and greatly affected our outlook on life. This is unlike anything most people have experienced. Yet, where does culture fit in? Culture influences the actions of individuals in society and is at the root of every person’s response to a new set of rules. It determines the level of compliance to the imposition of rules by government. Each culture will address COVID-19 regulations in a different manner, whether it be in its imposition of policies or its reactions. This will most likely transform the lives and cultural norms of people around the world, changing their perspective on life.

Cultural heritage determines the response to a new set of rules. However, European countries face a crucial problem in this action. This is due to them being part of a so-called ‘loose culture’, where there is often more acceptance of rule breaking, compared to ‘tight cultures’ that are rule orientated. At the individual level, this means people in loose cultures are more impulsive, willing to take risks and ignore guidelines. This could provide an explanation for why 30% of people in the UK continued to go outside for non-essential purposes in a study conducted this April. Europeans are therefore struggling to comply with the restrictions that continue to be imposed with new COVID-19 outbreaks.

This can be contrasted to ‘tight cultures’ such as China, where compliance to government regulation is widely accepted. The authoritarian leadership provides little room for public dissent in China, meaning that people follow the legislation set down. There is also more of a culture around utilising technology as a means to solve problems in East Asian countries, such as China, Japan and North Korea. This often causes people to be relatively more receptive to initiatives aimed at stopping the spread of COVID 19, such as downloading contact tracing apps. Although there is no single contact tracing app in China, contact tracing features were automatically added to AliPay and WeChat. This meant that in February more than 50 million people in the Zhejiang Province alone had signed up for health codes. This can be compared to Scotland, where the Track and Trace App had roughly been downloaded by one in five people after a fortnight of it being available. 

To monitor physical distancing across the population, European countries such as Austria, Germany and Italy use ‘anonymous aggregated mobile phone GPS data’, while China, Taiwan and North Korea take more invasive action. The combination of technology and strict enforcement meant these East Asian countries could use ‘data on individuals, to assess the compliance with physical distancing measures, trace contacts and enforce quarantine orders’ at the start of the pandemic. This meant they could regulate enforcement to prevent the virus spreading out of hand. 

Countries in East Asia, such as China, were well prepared to face this pandemic as their mindset had been shaped in response to previous outbreaks of disease. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002 changed the way that China, Hong Kong and Taiwan perceive the required response to a deadly illness. SARS resulted in 8,098 infections with 774 deaths with reports stating that there was ‘inadequate quarantine and isolation measures, poor hygiene precautions and vulnerability of health workers’. This was much like many European countries’ responses at the start of this pandemic, where efforts to curtail the threat of the virus were slow and healthcare systems were pushed to the limit. The SARS disease shaped East Asia’s mentality to look for the quick and collective responses which are needed against a pandemic. Ultimately, this allowed them to become more proficient in responding to the coronavirus pandemic than Europe. 

This responsive action can be viewed in terms of mask wearing. Yasheng Huang, a professor of management at MIT, stated that in ‘East Asia, nobody questions the value of wearing masks’ and added that ‘people in Hong Kong began to wear masks on their own in late December and early January’ without a government mandate. Comparing the voluntary use of masks outdoors in June in China and Singapore (where 83% and 90% of people said they used a mask respectively) to Britain, where only 38% of the population said they wore a mask, shows the real consequence of different experiences.

COVID-19 has potential to change cultural norms and the ways in which people act in the long run. The isolationism tactics of governments to prevent the spread of the disease abroad can have severe consequences on trust between countries. At least 93% of the global population live in countries with coronavirus-related travel restrictions and approximately three billion people are living in countries that have complete border closures to foreigners. The desire to protect borders and increase manufacturing production within national boundaries can promote nationalism and social mistrust between ethnic groups. MIT panellists also added that this could increase discrimination because the fear of others carrying the disease might break ‘bonds of social trust’. This could be one of the ‘key legacies’ of the virus, the authors added.

The mistrust of foreign nationalities can be seen with some Chinese people being used as  scapegoats for the pandemic. In fact, policing figures in the UK reveal that hate crimes against Chinese people in the UK increased dramatically at the start of COVID-19. There were 260 offences recorded against Chinese people in the first three months of the disease. This rate of hate crimes was nearly three times that of the previous two years. Although these acts are committed by a minority of people, it shows the problems of dicrismination that the world may face as we move forward from the initial dilemma of COVID-19.  

Yet there is still hope that cultures can retain some of their core integrity. Throughout the upheaval, Europe has seen a huge attempt by people trying to maintain their cultural traditions. For example, French boulangeries were kept open throughout the lockdown despite many other shops being closed. According to the President of the Confederation of National Patisseries and Bakeries, the ‘baguette is emblematic of French culture’. Moreover, the boulangerie is a communal space that provides interaction for the elderly and is often the space that children are allowed to visit for the first time alone. Germany’s renowned nightlife found a way to stay alive during lockdown as Berlin’s ClubCommission took to livestreaming sets from various clubs to enable people to party from their own house. Pubs in the UK, described by Boris Johnson as a ‘free born right’, managed to continue operating many quizzes and interactive experiences through online platforms such as Zoom and HouseParty. These are only a few examples of how communities have retained their core interaction, even with a virus that promotes mistrust and discrimination. 

Cultural beliefs can ultimately determine the success of a global effort to restrain the spread of COVID-19. In a time of global crisis, loose cultures such as those in Europe will struggle to follow guidelines. This means that the importance of collective action and responsibility increases, making people go against their usual desires and cultural drivers. Europe has a plethora of different cultures and norms, yet culturally conscious policy needs to be used for community engagement and make people more responsive in the effort to beat COVID-19.   

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Isobel Heaton says:

    Dear Patrick
    A well researched & constructed article.
    Having travelled to & experienced working in these countries as you have as well, I think you capture the cultural differences to compliance & freedom very well indeed.
    Well done.
    Forwarding it on to many people
    Best wishes


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