How Culture Impacts Response to a Pandemic

Ria Mitra


It’s often said that we learn the most about ourselves when we fall upon hard times, and this is true on a global scale as well as an individual one. In the past eight or so months, the world has been catapulted into circumstances more daunting and uncharted than any of us could have predicted; in such turmoil, what ensues is a certain clarity regarding our own very nature. The differences in how each community has dealt with Covid are astounding, and the root of these differences lies in the collective mindset of every culture. 


The current pandemic has been a massive corroboration to theories which anthropologists have been developing for decades, most notably ones regarding the classification of every culture on earth as either individualist or collectivist. Individualist societies often stress the importance of the rights of each individual, and value autonomy and self-sufficiency. People living in individualist societies tend to decide their actions based on the concept of guilt and how the action will tip their personal moral scales. Political representation, or at least the semblance of representation, is more present in individualist cultures, while uniqueness is desired. Collectivist societies look more to social standards of right and wrong over legislative standards, and the interests of the larger community are considered more by individuals. Family values are upheld strongly in collectivist societies, and the maintenance of a functioning society relies on the synergy of everyone in the community pulling their weight. For reference, Western Europe and North America mostly consist of individualistic societies, while most Asian countries, including India, are seen as collectivist.


So, how has this cultural divide become more apparent in the era of Covid? Well, studies from UC Santa Barbara show that cultures designated as collectivist have generally displayed a more effective response to coronavirus; this is both due to the tendency of collectivist nations to look out for the welfare of the community at large as well as a stronger willingness to comply with government policies.  Collectivist nations have a substantial belief, whether subconsciously or not, that societal progress comes from collaboration and a coming together of the masses. Because collectivism means that families and smaller communities are so tight-knit and interdependent, the understanding is present that one person’s actions will impact those close to them. I’m sure many of you reading this may live with your extended family, as is often customary in India. Surely this has impacted how seriously you uphold measures to stop yourself getting the virus, right? Even in our own lives, elements of collectivism are abundantly clear. In countries like China and Japan, despite being close to the epicentre of the virus, the ingrained communal values in society meant that citizens did not question things like wearing masks, staying at home, and maintaining adequate social distancing, due to a greater faith in governmental authority. Compounding that is a trust in experts and a simple belief in science and medicine, which goes a long way in quelling an outbreak. So, though it’s true that governments often do not have our best interests at heart, those nations that were able to put personal beliefs aside to listen to the informed rules and suggestions of their governments ultimately somewhat flattened their curve. 


Countries which are staunchly individualistic, notably the US, are quite the contrast to this. Political divisions and an, albeit warranted, mistrust of the government hindered adequate response to Covid. Just look up “anti-masker compilation” on Youtube or Google “Hype House party”, and you’ll see more than enough evidence about the dangers of opposing medical and governmental suggestions. Because of the way individualism calls for personal rights and autonomy to be held in such high regard, these cultures can often be opposed to governments meddling in their daily affairs. Most of the time, this can actually lead to healthy self-education beyond a blind belief in what authorities say is true, but in this case it clearly proved detrimental. Moreover, people in individualistic societies are not generally raised with the same strong family and communal values as in collectivist societies, so they don’t have the same motivation to make personal sacrifices for the sake of the greater good. On the whole, individualism is appealing because it fosters an environment in which people feel like they as individuals truly matter, and hard work is rewarded. However, when people start placing their personal privilege to party or not wear a mask above others’ right to live, a problem arises. 


Of course, Covid-19 is not just a question of culture, but also of science, economic development, and more. We cannot pin the efficacy of a country’s pandemic response to one factor, but it certainly is an interesting lens to view the afflictions of the present day. What I definitely state is that we are all tremendously fortunate to be in the position we’re in during a time like this, and our relative privileges are likely to keep us safer from the virus than many of our counterparts in this country.