Covid Mortality and National Culture
When the coronavirus pandemic spread globally in 2020, it was often suggested that Covid did not care much for national borders. But even before national vaccine roll-outs, it was apparent that societies did vary in their ability to contain the virus. While the numbers of people dying from Covid varied widely between highly industrialized nations like the United States and Japan, mortality rates remained comparatively low in systems as politically and economically opposed as Japan and China. Are such differences attributable, then, not to economic or political conditions - a country's gross domestic product, form of government, or number of hospital beds - but rather to "cultural" factors?
A study by WZB researchers Jianhong Li, Jan Paul Heisig, Simon Löbl and former WZB visiting researcher Plamen Akaliyski and co-authors, using data for 37 countries, demonstrates that cultural divides can partially explain the reported global differences in mortality rates. The study is based on an approach that, following the social psychologist Geert Hofstede, conceives of culture as "software of the mind," which guides how individuals act within a society. Empirically, representative surveys have shown that societies differ in terms of their culture being either more or less "individualistic" versus "collectivistic" or "monumental" versus "flexible".
Graph depicts the relationship of "flexible" and "monumental" societies and COVID mortality in countries worldwide.
The study's authors show that culturally "flexible" societies (especially those in East Asia) fared well during the early phase of the pandemic compared with countries which scored low on flexibility. For cases reported as of October 31, 2020, the former suffered fewer deaths than the rest of the world.
The authors' explanation for this is that in societies with high flexibility, parents put more weight on techniques such as self-control, emotional management and the suppression of negative feelings. This likely had a positive impact amid the pandemic, for example resulting in a greater social acceptance of mask wearing. This contrasts with the more "monumental" societies of Latin America, Europe and the U.S., where parents are more likely to caution their children to put their own needs above those of others, to give free rein to their feelings, and to "be themselves." A key finding of the study is that those cultural differences are better at predicting the global variation in Covid mortality in the pandemic's early phase than other cultural factors (such as the individualistic-collectivistic divide), or measures of a country's economic welfare or political system.