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The Impact of Culture on COVID-19 Cases and Deaths

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Is there a correlation between culture and the COVID-19 pandemic?

This is a question we’ve posed before in previous blogs.

However, there is now research on exactly how much of an impact national cultural differences have had on the cases and deaths of COVID-19.

A new study published by The Lancet, entitled “The relationship between cultural tightness–looseness and COVID-19 cases and deaths: a global analysis,” provides some hard facts.

In this blog, we’ll give you a quick overview of some of the key points found by the research.


How Different Cultures Tackled COVID-19

As far back as March 2020, we recognised some acute differences between countries initially dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Our blog on Chinese culture and how it helped fight the virus, looked at the influence of Confucianism and how this has created a collectivist society which respects authority.

In another blog, we compared this to the USA, where the rights of the individual pervade the culture at every level and any curtailment of liberty is seen as an assault on freedom.

We also had a peek at some differences between the South Koreans and Americans in another.

Now, almost a year later, we have some evidence to back up many of the assertions and observations we made in these blogs.

Culture, without doubt, has shaped a country’s relative success or failure in wrestling with the virus.


Global Differences in COVID-19 Cases and Deaths

The research looked at cases and deaths as of October 2020.

As of October 16th, almost 39 million cases have been reported with 1 million + deaths worldwide.

There are some marked differences between countries.

For example, Singapore and Taiwan effectively contained the virus, with 9,865 cases (five deaths) per million in Singapore and 22 cases (0·3 deaths) per million in Taiwan, whereas Brazil and the USA each had more than 24, 000 cases and approximately 700 deaths per million as of October, 2020.

In order to compare countries, the researchers applied there own cultural modelling, focusing on ‘cultural tightness’ vs ‘cultural looseness’.

Roughly speaking, tight cultures, i.e. China, Japan, S. Korea, are considered more collectivist. Loose cultures, such as the USA, Brazil and UK, are considered less collectivist and more individualistic.

In Taiwan, for example, there were high levels of self-regulation and voluntary abidance with rules around social distancing, wearing masks, and avoiding large crowds. This collective approach enabled the country to keep both the infection and mortality rates low without shutting down the economy.

In contrast, countries such as Brazil, the USA, and Spain have struggled to contain the virus and citizens were more likely to violate rules put in place and flout social norms.


Cultural Differences and COVID-19 Cases and Deaths

The statistics are pretty clear - compared with countries with high levels of cultural tightness, nations with high levels of cultural looseness are estimated to have had 4·99 times the number of cases of COVID-19. The death rate is 8·71 times higher!

In the graph below, you can see the clear differences between countries and their death rates.

‘Loose cultures’ such as Israel, Argentina, Spain and the USA can all be found near the top end whereas ‘tight cultures’ such as China, Thailand and Vietnam are near the bottom.


 

Graph with COVID-19 death rates

 

The association of cultural tightness and logged deaths per million [source]


Key Findings

Below are some of the researchers key points:

  • They suggest that tight cultures are able to coordinate much faster which means they have higher survival rates than looser cultures.
  • When groups are under threat, norms for cooperation evolve much faster in tight as compared with loose cultures, which results in higher survival rates.
  • Next to this, such cultures also have much tighter social norms which means people tend to behave as everyone else does and cooperate.
  • Not all loose cultures did poorly and not all tight cultures were successful at limiting cases and deaths during COVID-19.
  • The results however did show that cultural looseness can be a liability during times of threat, which the researchers identify as an evolutionary disadvantage.

Read More

If you want to dive into the research and statistics yourself, then have a read of the research which will give you much more detail.

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