Individuality and freedom are undoubtedly the greatest achievements of modern culture. . . . But we have fallen into the trap of individualism . . . and have lost sight of the relationships between the individual and the social system, between freedom and responsibility. . . . Our young adults—even some of those most talented and gifted—are coping with half of what they need. They have a vision of freedom to pursue individual contentment. Typically, however, they do not have a robust vision of social engagement and responsibility.
- Piper, T.R., Gentile, M.C., & Parks, S.D. (1993). “Can Ethics Be Taught? Perspectives, Challenges, and Approaches”. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School
Those who have been visiting this blog on a regular basis for the past few months might remember some of the differences between the East and the West discussed in previous posts (“…capitalist values coupled with strong individualistic tendencies on one side, a collectivist mindset on the other…”; “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs - according to which self-actualization represents the highest stage of human motivation - may not apply to collectivist, non-Western societies that place greater emphasis on social rather than individual”; “Confucian morality aimed at restoring social order through self-legislation”; “Western culture pulls people apart, pits the strong against the weak.”; “In true shame-oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one. Personal desires are sunk in the collective expectation.”) : this week we are going to expand on the topic by discussing about some of the approaches to the pandemic adopted by different countries.
To what extent does national culture have an impact on priority management and disaster preparedness?
An article recently published by National Review - Coronavirus and the Clash of Civilizations - raises some interesting points, for instance:
-“What most impressed me in my travels was the seriousness with which the outbreak is taken all over Asia. In Europe and America, at least among the political class, the coronavirus has been mostly a matter for jokes and general levity…”;
-“I wondered if social mores explained why some countries and not others became hotspots of the infection. I thought of my previous visits to the city [Wuhan]: the crowded restaurants serving crayfish, the long meals around the hotpot, the communal living, and the chaos of the wholesale seafood market. But it was not just China. Southern Europeans greet themselves with one or two kisses. Iranians spend time crowded together during daily prayer…”;
-“One of the main divides was between the developed and the developing world. It explained the seriousness in Asia. If poverty and disease are a daily presence or at most two or three generations behind you, you are predisposed to accept that your world can suddenly collapse. The question that Americans and Europeans ask themselves — How was this allowed to happen? — makes less sense than the question of how to survive and how to protect your loved ones.”;
-“Can America move as a single organism? Has the collective muscle atrophied to the point that it no longer works as needed?”
-“At present the most hopeful news about our ability to defeat the epidemic comes from what could roughly be called the Confucian cosmopolis. Singapore ( Confucian-Asia cluster) flirted with disaster at the beginning but quickly recovered. Vietnam (Southern-Asia cluster) has shown a remarkable ability to contain the spread, and South Korea has proven capable of conducting as many as 10,000 tests per day and has built testing clinics that can detect the coronavirus cases in just ten minutes. Do these facts illustrate the benefits of a moral system that emphasizes duties before rights and places high value on the propriety of customs, measures, and rules as defined by the larger community?”;
“For all the talk about European values, Italy seems to have embraced large parts of the Chinese response to the coronavirus. In the way they place social stability above everything else, China and Italy are discovering, perhaps to their surprise, a shared cultural substratum. The United States seems to be moving in a different direction. President Trump is taking the enormous gamble of assuming that Americans are different in that they can deal with higher levels of risk.”;
It is not possible to understand patterns and national responses to the pandemic without taking into consideration a number of cultural factors. The actions and the behaviours observed and mentioned by the author are influenced by:
- collectivism (prevalent in Asia and in Southern Europe, “China and Italy are discovering, perhaps to their surprise, a shared cultural substratum…”) or individualism (prevalent in the Anglo-American cluster);
- proxemics (the spatial dimension of non-verbal behaviour, “Southern Europeans greet themselves with one or two kisses. Iranians spend time crowded together during daily prayer.”);
- uncertainty avoidance, (the aversion to risk, “…assuming that Americans are different in that they can deal with higher levels of risk.”);
- large doses of “American Exceptionalism” (“The United States has enjoyed remarkable success, and Americans tend to portray their rise to world power as a direct result of the political foresight of the Founding Fathers, the virtues of the U.S. Constitution, the priority placed on individual liberty, and the creativity and hard work of the American people. In this narrative, the United States enjoys an exceptional global position today because it is, well, exceptional.”).
What does all of the above imply with regard to leadership from an “East v West” perspective?
“Those Chinese, who complain or ridicule the Western countries for not able to emulate China methods in battling against coronavirus, need to understand the two diverse civilizations, political systems and culture between the East and West.
In China, the leader has to step down if he makes a bad administrative mistake or unacceptable behaviour. In the West, the leader gets re-elected to the office for getting the voters to believe that he has done a great job. He may have to cheat, lies or push the blame to others to convince voters he is a perfect leader. Getting votes is his ulterior motive.
In China, the leader will lose his job if he does not place the livelihood of the people as his highest priority. In responding to his measures, the Chinese are willingly or unwillingly to obey the orders at their expense.Many classic examples in China ancient history have shown emperors, who had failed to provide safety and livelihood to their people, were either overthrown or killed by their rivals. It is the leader’s obligation to his people in keeping his power.
The Westerners are more independent thinking, and they will weigh which side is better for them. They believe the coronavirus is not that dire disastrous as it seems. Though they are aware of the high death rate, many of them feel that the plague will not fall on them. After all, it is only 2%. The lockdown causes immense sufferings like isolation at home and loss of jobs. They would rather die of the virus than losing a job and cause the whole family to suffer. It is unimaginable in the West that they lose the freedom to socialize or moving outdoors to do their chores. Henceforth, it is no surprise for the different reactions and outcome between the East and West.” (Calipe’s original article can be found here).
To bring it all together, the strategies adopted by different countries to cope with the pandemic are a reflection of those countries’ cultural values, rooted in history and conditioned by sociology.
This short series on responses to the pandemic will continue with reflections on the differences between societies that belong to the same culture clusters (e.g., Ireland v America).