The American Cultural Barrier in Confronting the Pandemic

New York National Guard
Image credit: The National Guard / CC BY

It was Jan. 20, and the first case of Covid-19 was detected in the United States. I attended a tech conference in San Francisco the next week, and “elbow bumps” were suggested instead of handshakes. After all, it is flu season, our organizer proclaimed. Good medical foresight. But not global foresight, which turned out to be the only foresight that mattered. Because Covid-19 has taught us that we are now global by default.

That same week Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand reported their first cases, and the city of Wuhan, with more residents than New York City, was shut down. They have valuable experience battling SARS and H1N1. Learnings are not only built into epidemic containment protocol, but also deeply embedded in culture. So much so that Taiwan’s Vice President is an epidemiologist; his training is valued and relevant.

On that same Jan. 20, Taiwan was reactivating command centers created after SARS to implement 124 action items, including border control, PPE manufacturing deployment, and public awareness campaigns. In the U.S., it took another month for the President to ask Congress to allocate emergency funds to prepare a response, and travelers continued to pour through American airports without screening. Taiwan already had its health insurance and immigration database information cross-referenced to create alerts for specific travelers, trace cases in real time, and generate data for analytics going forward.

In the U.S., these measures face cultural barriers. Privacy is a cultural construct, and Western culture sees surveillance measures as a slippery slope towards dystopian state control and the erosion of human rights. Many Eastern cultures, especially Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, are collectivist cultures, where the values and goals of the group are prioritized above the individual.

The ritual of medical mask wearing is a collective practice for the interdependent health of the group. In India, hands are ink-stamped with quarantine dates. In China, a mobile app grants access to public transportation for the uninfected and tracks the infected. Individualism and collectivism are cultural dimensions that frame perception of data collection: either as a threat to individual freedom, or as security in collective protection.

In the most individualistic country in the world, individual decision-making prevails even under lockdown. American cities sport a wide definition of “essential activities,” in most cases allowing for outdoor recreation and shopping for essential services that include home improvement stores and boat marinas. Even in many European countries, recreation is severely limited to hours of the day or defined tasks like walking a dog, and a “pass” is required in transit to an essential service. France warned its citizens not to go out and enjoy the spring weather, saying “no release is allowed,” and is enforcing it with the police and the National Gendarmerie.

American culture is to be invincible. To fight. To be positive. Americans are seen as having strong opinions, questioning authority, and wishing everyone the same great day they are purportedly having. But beating the coronavirus requires being vulnerable, and this is not an American cultural dimension. Live case studies on a path from Wuhan to Lombardy showed Europeans they were vulnerable. Asia knew it was vulnerable from previous outbreaks. Brazil and Russia flexed about not being vulnerable.

President Trump and Governor Cuomo also denied vulnerability at their press conferences. Against health warnings, Trump vowed the U.S. would be “opened up” by Easter. Cuomo pushed to keep New York schools open, and when he finally announced a two week closure, he wasn’t modelling vulnerability in sitting shoulder to shoulder with his commissioners. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam gave press conferences wearing a medical mask. Spanish leaders had learned the rules of the virus and gave their press conferences from widely spaced individual podiums. It took longer for American leaders to even begin to learn from this experience. Cuomo is now distanced from his commissioners by six feet on the dais, critical behavior to model to a densely populated city that is therefore especially vulnerable.

Case studies in vulnerability abound in geopolitics. Finland has a national stockpile of personal protective equipment. Because it knows it is vulnerable: Finland shares a long border with Russia. Its trade is at the mercy of conditions in the Baltic Sea. Germany knew it was relatively less vulnerable to the virus because of its medical system capacity in hospital beds and ventilators, so it explicitly delayed drastic lockdown measures longer than some of its neighbors.

Assessing vulnerability was a strength, not a weakness, in Asia and Europe. The U.S. had the case studies, the timeline, but not the global foresight to assess its own kind of American vulnerability.

This is a follow-up article to “Coronavirus Knows no Borders? Here Are a Few of Them.”