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Can Cultural Differences Explain How Countries Approach COVID-19?


Culture is everywhere; whether you know it or not.

It influences everything from how we get married, do business with one another and yes, deal with a pandemic.

Over the past few weeks, we've explored how Chinese culture shaped the country's response to COVID-19; we then examined how American culture may actually be helping spread the virus, as opposed to slowing it down.

In both, we unpicked the very different ideas around personal responsibility, accountability and where you see yourself in the grand scheme of things.

An Insight into South Korean Culture & COVID-19

It was therefore interesting to see Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently published an article about baseball player Josh Lindblom (Milwaukee Brewers).

Josh Lindblom Korea opt



The pitcher, who played in the Korean Baseball Organization, compared how the coronavirus pandemic played out in the U.S. and South Korea, with some fascinating insights that match with the conclusions we drew in our blogs.




Wearing Masks and Cultural Differences

One particular example he gave was the different mindsets and approaches to the question of wearing masks in public.

The evidence seems to suggest wearing masks is only positive in that it prevents others from getting your germs, not the wearer of the mask.

This simple point has seen different cultures answer the question in different ways. Some, which think more about the "I" are not so keen on wearing them, whereas in cultures which think more about the "we", they are very positive about it.

Lindblom explains:

“In Korea, they are very proactive with just about anything. It’s a way of life; it really is. Take masks for example. The reason people there wear masks, most of the time, is not because they don’t want other people to make them sick. They do it because they don’t want to risk getting other people sick. They think of others first."

He adds that the Koreans are much more proactive than Americans, who he sees as being much more reactive.

“They are proactive, whereas a lot of the precautions we’re taking now are reactive. We’re wearing masks here to try to avoid getting sick. I’m not a cultural analyst by any means. All of those things are in response to the coronavirus. But, beyond that, there’s an Eastern mindset and world view, in general, as opposed to the Western world view.”

The Individual vs. The Group

A common theme that runs through Lindblom's observations come back to the idea of individualism and collectivism.

“In the West, we are more focused on the individual. Our wants, our desires, our needs, and the choices that we make are made mostly with ‘us’ in mind. In the East, what you have is decisions are made based on the betterment of the group. That is instilled in that culture from the time they are born.”

This, he believes, explains why countries such as South Korea and China were able to take control of the virus early on.

It's for this reason that people in South Korea were much more relaxed about things like tracking mobile phones and taking people's temperatures at the entrances to McDonalds and the like.

(As an aside, it is also fascinating to see how the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel positions this as, "A culture willing to sacrifice individual liberties." What more of a value judgement could there be then within this one subheader?)

American Culture

So what explains America's response to the coronavirus?

“It’s the individualism of our society,” Lindblom said. “The ‘self’ rules. My happiness supersedes everyone else’s happiness. As long as I’m happy, that’s all that matters. In Korea, they think more about caring for others, caring for your neighbours, your community. It’s just the way they think there."

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