By Jenny Plaister-Ten
Riding the Corona Coaster

Riding the Corona Coaster

The UK has entered its second lockdown and many countries are experiencing tightened measures due to a surge in Covid-19 cases. What can we learn from the first lockdown? What will be the response to new rules? Will the rules differ between nations and why?  In the future, will there be a ‘new normal’ and what could it look like?

A survey conducted during March and April 2020 covering some 20 countries illuminated the uncertainty inherent within the global pandemic. It highlighted that peoples’ ability to cope with that uncertainty can in part be determined by national culture.  The survey posed questions about: sources of comfort, sources of stress, reactions to the behaviour of fellow citizens, observance of cultural norms and government response in the respondent’s country-of-origin or country-of-residence. 

Trust in government emerged as a leading theme in the survey.  Rules in society are passed as laws by governments and upheld by law enforcers. Rules serve to influence or limit the choices and opportunities available to citizens. On the other hand, ‘agency’ is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices or not (Giddens, 1984). One of the key findings is that the impact of culture is manifested in different reactions to rules and the subsequent behaviour this evokes. 

A personal journey?

During lockdown, I was asked what my level of inner peace or disruption was, on a scale of 1-5.  1 being zen-like peacefulness and 5 being utter inner chaos.

Initially, I thought I was a 3.  I am fortunate to live in a nice house with outdoor space and we live well. Sometimes I could reach a 2, feeling blessed to live close to nature and to be able to eat well and share lockdown with loved ones.  At other times, I felt I was at a 4 – particularly when arguments with loved ones meant we were not speaking or even eating together!  Such was the nature of my own personal journey during the roller-coaster of life during lockdown (referred to jocularly as the Corona-Coaster).  However, I am only one of around 7.7 billion people.   Each person’s unique individual circumstances and level of resilience would have a bearing on their response to this question.

Whilst I was doing this research, it gradually became apparent that the virus was exacerbating whatever conditions already existed. We have seen a disparity between the ‘have’s and have not’s’ to the extent that lockdown to some was considered a luxury - a time to reflect, to slow down, to work in the garden or learn a new skill.  For others, lockdown has been hell – losing jobs and income, not able to feed the family, and living in cramped conditions with a correspondingly higher risk of infection. 

Concern for self or other

Cultural norms can teach us something. One way of exploring differences proposed by Hofstede (2001), is a country’s place on dimensions.  One such dimension is individualism at one extreme and collectivism at the other. Countries who are culturally more collective in orientation more naturally form obligations and dependencies to groups in society. The groups are such as family, team, company, society and nation, even social community.  

 Living conditions play a role, and these can also be culturally-bound. In collectivist societies it is not uncommon for multiple generations to live together.  Many Asian countries often have three generations under the same roof in cramped conditions.  Yet, the virus can be more easily transmitted under these circumstances. Migrant workers living in dormitories or factories, as reported in Singapore, were found to be fertile breeding grounds for virus transmission and serve as a pointer to the impact of neglecting marginalised communities. So even in collectivist societies, people are not considered equal and the formation of groups causes ‘in-groups’ (people who are part of the majority, the powerful or popular) and ‘out-groups’ (people who are marginalised, part of a minority or simply disliked).

The opposite to collectivism is Individualism.  Individualism indicates that there is a greater importance placed on attaining personal goals and individual freedoms. Lockdown in highly individualist Holland, was termed ‘intelligent lockdown’. The state in the Netherlands gave clear guidelines for its citizens to follow, however, it was nowhere near as prescriptive as its Southern neighbours. Prime Minister Mark Rutte described the Netherlands as a "grown-up country". "What I hear around me, is that people are glad that they are treated as adults, not as children," he said.

In individualistic cultures there are different rules for personal space; an Englishman’s home is his castle is an adage that refers to a country with a history of invasion.  This possibly explains why some English people are naturally quite isolated and do not always feel the need to talk to neighbours or think about other people before themselves.  Although many reported a change in this behaviour during lockdown. For example, people in Northern Italy, a relatively individualistic culture, were seen to be singing from balconies early in lockdown and a respondent to the survey characterised this as ‘bringing joy to others’. Furthermore, the Italian Ministry of Health asked medical professionals throughout Italy to volunteer in the Covid units and put their lives at risks to help others. They were inundated with volunteers.

 The USA, a highly individualist country, was one of the first to experience protests claiming an infringement on individual rights. This is the freedom of each individual to pursue the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without interference from other individuals, as stated in the United States Declaration of Independence.  These protests led to an increase in police presence and as we saw later, aggression. Increasing federalism in the USA meant that each state was responsible for their own response to the Covid-19 threat.  Whereas a centralised approach could have resulted in cohesive action.  Cases in the USA are the highest worldwide (around 10 million to date).

Trust in Government

Another aspect of culture, according to Hofstede, is power distance.  In hierarchical societies power resides at the top, and people expect to be told what to do.  Whereas, egalitarian societies tend to see a wider distribution of power.  Most but not all hierarchical societies are also collective and most egalitarian countries tend to be individualistic.  These tendencies typically develop citizens who think/do for themselves or citizens who think/do as others expect.

In hierarchical Singapore, the cost of non-conformance to Covid-19 rules was high.  Fines could be as high as $10,000 SGD and even a prison term. As one of the respondents said, they are happy to follow the rules and grateful that the government is helping to make them feel safe. This may be reinforced by efforts designed to control the population such as ‘My Singapore’, a campaign designed to instil a source of national pride and support for all things local. Playing down the impact of the virus can also be seen to be a protective measure, rather than a lack of transparency, as it would be perceived in egalitarian societies.

In the UK we saw examples of both allegiances to self and ‘other’.  The government pulled on the collective heartstrings of the nation by appealing to the need to care about others, particularly front-line workers. This attempted to control the drain on the much-loved National Health Service, a public institution.  People followed the rules when the rules were eventually put in place; although by this time, the government had lost the trust of some of its citizens.  Dominic Cummings blatant flouting of the rules did little to help the situation in England.  This has been further exacerbated by confusing and unclear instructions.

The autonomy of individuals in the Netherlands means that ‘equivalence’ is an important cultural value.  People are considered to be more or less equal and everyone is entitled to a voice. This meant that the government made a recommendation about how people should behave in the pandemic and then individuals decided whether to follow or not.  Germany, on the other hand, despite low hierarchy, places a high value on structure, planning and discipline. Consequently, there is more of a tendency to listen to experts and to follow advice.  In this instance, rules exist to reduce uncertainty. 

Indeed, across the world, governments have been at varying levels of preparedness versus improvisation.  It is fair to say that governments who took decisive action and communicated the rules clearly have fared better so far; such as New Zealand, Germany, South Korea and Mongolia.

Anxiety provoking

The survey revealed many sources of anxiety as well as comfort.  Unfortunately, the list of anxieties was longer than the list of comforts. Some sources were on both lists, such as family and food. This reinforced the ‘up and down’ nature of the ‘Corona-Coaster’; where family support could be a positive factor in one instance and a stress and anxiety-inducing factor in another.  The media, politicians, non-compliance to rules, failing relationships and lack of protective equipment were key amongst the stressors, with slowing down, learning, zoom calls, exercise and cooking all featuring strongly amongst the comforts. Although others reported feeling ‘zoomed out’ due to an excessive amount of time at the computer.  A lack of face-face contact was also said to contribute to feelings of burn-out.

Some societies are more naturally prone to anxiety than others.  France, for example has a high score on another of Hofstede’s dimensions, the Uncertainty Avoidance dimension. This can mean a high need for structure and planning in French society that can lead to a ‘need to know’.  Yet, France is unusual in that it is a highly hierarchical yet individualistic society. Ordinarily, French people can demonstrate a reluctance to respect rules and perhaps can account for the high number of protests and strikes.  This tendency can become exacerbated in unstable circumstances.

Covid-19 was bringing out the best and the worst of us.  In the research, blatant flouting of the rules was cited across Europe – from large groups banding together to illegal parties. But such acts were thought to be the actions of a minority. An example of extremely bad behaviour was the act of aggression of spitting on people who were innocently picnicking in a park, as was seen in the UK on one occasion.  Clearly this puts people at increased risk of catching the virus and only serves to increase anxiety amongst society.

Deeper divisions

Anxiety that is embedded within a group, community or country can lead to some deep social problems. The Black Asian and Multi Ethnic (BAME) community are amongst the hardest-hit by the Coronavirus, which has led to questions around why that should be, and to questions about the availability of safety-nets for vulnerable people. Suggested reasons include existing health inequalities, housing conditions, public-facing occupations and structural racism.  Lockdown has seen increased police presence and police aggression along with the tragic murder of George Lloyd and a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

A wide variety of cultural norms influence a citizen’s response to government intervention, to following the rules and to levels of anxiety in society-at-large.  They also contribute to the levels of competition in society and an allegiance to self or other.  Trust in government appears to be key during this pandemic.  The more benevolent or caring governments appear to have fared better – such as New Zealand, Canada, and some of the Scandinavian countries.  But, some governments don’t always anticipate the actions of their people well.  The larger the population and the more heterogeneous then the more difficult this becomes. 

 The new normal

The research led me to question what kind of societies we will be left with.  Is the pandemic a disruptive force for a better or worse future?  If there is a ‘new normal’ what will it be like?

On the whole, communities appeared to pull together and exhibit the level of caring that in recent years has been missing from many of our lives.  A focus on local communities and support for all things ‘local’ could mark a shift away from globalisation. Despite this, communities have witnessed some examples of bad civic behaviours; especially around social distancing, the wearing of masks and the perceived curtailment of individual freedoms.

Entrenched inequalities can cause huge social unrest and the crisis appears to have shone a spotlight upon several of these, magnifying to a great extent what was already there.  Poor living and working conditions, poverty, overcrowding and marginalised groups have put some people at risk of the virus, whilst others live and work comfortably. 

Gender inequalities have also been illuminated, with women reporting that they have had to do their own work, plus the housework and childcare, thus potentially eroding many years of progress in equality. Not only that, we appear to have taken a step backward with our approaches to the elderly. A healthy 65 or 70-year-old can be stigmatised for being old and has been ‘lumped’ into the same category as an 80 or 90-year-old with different needs that should result in different government policies.

Digitalisation has, on the other hand, has seen massive progress. Many people have learned new digital skills.  Learning and collaborative platforms have been built.  Additionally, many societies have experimented with working from home (WFH). Although loneliness and isolation caused by WFH was said to have increased, particularly from those identifying as extrovert in nature.  If the future is digital, how do we make sure that large segments of society are not left behind? Adapt, learn new skills or become obsolete is a harsh message, but flexibility and creativity has already become a core skill required to adapt, not only to the virus, but a whole new future of work.

Existential crisis

This is in many ways an existential crisis. It is the first time that many of us have had to contemplate our mortality.  It’s uncomfortable. People look towards their governments to relieve the burdens that have increased as a result of the pandemic, such as social care, mental health, old age provision, unemployment and to provide support to sectors of the economy at risk.  And now there is the additional anxiety of illness and possible loss of life through Covid.

If we can trust the science, the health professionals, the ministers to set rules that we are happy to follow, then we in turn have faith that we will be guided out of this crisis…… or not.

Despite the challenges that this pandemic has presented us with, along with some regressive steps in society, I would like to end on an optimistic note.  Of huge significance, is that the survey has illuminated the desire of ordinary people for governments to work together on global issues and to learn from each other.  In this respect, the pandemic crisis has the potential to be a good leveller.  As attention turns to world events such as a new President-elect in the USA, Brexit and the race to produce sufficient vaccines for the entire world-population, it would seem that collaboration would make far more sense than competing, inappropriate or isolating policies.

 

Jenny Plaister-Ten (www.10Consulting.co.uk) is a consultant coach/supervisor with a speciality in the intercultural field.  Her book, ‘The Cross-Cultural Kaleidoscope’ was published by Karnac/Routledge in 2016.  She may be reached at [email protected]

 

With thanks and acknowledgement to Alison Hail and Anthony Ten Jet Foei for their help in editing this article.

References

  • Giddens (1984), The Constitution of Society, Polity Press, Cambridge UK
  • Hofstede (2001), Cultures Consequences, Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions and Organisations Across Nations, Sage, London, UK
  • United Nations, accessed 28/10/20 https://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/population/
  • World Health Organisation, accessed 10/11/20 https://covid19.who.int/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw59n8BRD2ARIsAAmgPmIHicugmruvb3t85ZMdEnrmaHvzbYUz233fHkBvF8BWtKmuCPHgy38aAnXqEALw

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