Chinese workers keep to the 'social distancing' rules during a lunch break at Dongfeng Honda in Wuhan. Photo: AFP/STR

The Covid-19 pandemic has tested the strength of communities across the globe. As the crisis has thrust societies into unfamiliar contexts, from panic to social distancing and restrictive state rules, it has pitted individual interests against the group’s and skepticism against trust. Yet while the merits of different measures and political systems have garnered the most attention during the crisis, these social bonds have been largely overlooked.

Elements of the test, trace and contain trifecta have been present in most measures to quash infections. Yet national approaches, and outcomes, have been far from uniform. Differences in climate, population density, demography, healthcare and political competence, as well as varying cultural norms, values and customs, have prevented governments and citizens across the world from reacting in lockstep to the outbreak.

For quarantining and social distancing, behaviour around compliance has been key. Many expect tough autocratic states to have an upper hand in limiting population movement, with stricter policing and deterrents. Recent research from Oxford University using Google Map movement data during lockdowns finds they have actually been less effective in reducing mobility. China with its highly efficient state may be an exception, but repression and poor governance in authoritarian states generally eviscerates the social ties needed for cooperation.

Democracies like Germany and South Korea by contrast have drawn on trust, built up partially through a legacy of delivering high-quality public services, to support cooperation. Yet, liberal societies have themselves exhibited varying levels of adherence to social distancing measures. Trust in government is on the decline in many, and the potential for asymptomatic carriers to spread infection places greater emphasis on individuals operating as if they have contracted the virus. As such, democracies with more group-orientated values tend to be more effective at containment according to the Oxford study.

Using national responses to the World Values Survey (WVS), and indices to measure differences in cross-cultural psychology, more collectivist countries – where loyalty and conformity tend to be more highly valued – exhibit greater declines in people movement, relative to more individualistic societies for the same policy measures. In sum, it seems easier to encourage collective action in community-orientated societies. The data appears to echo what’s been happening on the ground.

The UK and US have in particular faced challenges in enforcing lockdowns. In late March, mobility data from Citymapper showed Brits to be among the most active, in terms of journeys by foot and public transport, compared to other European nations. Police officers in the UK have equally been confounded by the number of people breaching distancing measures. Meanwhile, the US has seen notable resistance to lockdowns, with mass protests in some quarters.

Western Europe, North America, and Australia score among the highest in cultural measures of individualism. Self-image in these societies are defined more in terms of “I” rather than “We,” with a greater sense of responsibility toward oneself and direct family. While this may contribute to challenges in sustaining social distancing in some of these countries. It may also explain an instinct to delay lockdown measures to avoid hindering personal liberties for as long as possible. As European nations were shuttering in March, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to “make their own decisions” about isolating, while US President Donald Trump was also averse to an earlier lockdown.

Countries with more individualistic traits also tend to hold more skepticism toward government interventions, which can make it harder to enforce rules. Yet where a culture of trust has developed alongside the sense of self-responsibility, through political stability, low inequality, and high standards of living, like in Sweden, Germany, and Switzerland, strict lockdowns have been avoided altogether. In implementing social distancing rules Sweden’s prime minister said he was simply relying on folkvett – people’s common sense.

Meanwhile, countries with a greater tendency toward collectivist traits on the WVS, like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, may have been better able to maintain disciplined quarantines. In Japan courtesy, obligation, and shame play an important part in daily life, which has reinforced the elevation of group needs over individual needs, particularly through the wearing of face masks, maintaining social distance and personal hygiene. Stigmas around defecting from norms and giri, or duties toward others, continue to impact Japan’s social, political and business fora.

In South Korea, inhwa, or a culture of harmony between people, may have boosted the effectiveness of its distancing rules, though social factors may have influenced its response in other ways. It has adopted a highly efficient system of cellphone, credit card, and travel record monitoring for infection tracing. Although intrusive, public outrage has been relatively limited, particularly compared with debates in western nations.

For South Koreans accepting some state surveillance, a particularly transparent form at that, was a necessary sacrifice to avoid the loss of other freedoms. After all, it enabled the country to avoid a full lockdown. The vivid memory of the 2015 MERS outbreak, alongside growing trust in the government’s infection preparedness in its aftermath, is likely to have shaped the national psyche in its tolerance of this trade-off. 

In Bhutan, a democratic nation with a strong Buddhist heritage, communal values have fortified its response to Covid-19. Hoteliers and restaurants have offered their services free of charge. Locals have helped set up isolation  zones in villages and volunteers are helping to monitor the country’s border with India. Efforts have been reinforced by visibly selfless acts from Bhutan’s leaders. The king has travelled across the country to support containment measures, the government is providing food in quarantine facilities, and politicians have donated their salaries.

In a time when assurance, compliance, and coordination is vital, societies with high trust and a greater proclivity toward collectivist actions may have additional ammo. Behavioural scientists in the UK have been advising that government messaging promotes a sense of community. Yet as the world attempts to adjust to the new normal after the pandemic, and continues its search for a vaccine, societies may be driven to nurture both their cooperative and competitive sides to drive innovation.

Indeed, clearly collectivist-leaning societies also exhibit individualism, and vice versa. Volunteers, businesses, and social enterprises across western nations have banded together to support the health response, while breaches of government measures have been seen in all countries. But nations are nonetheless shaped differently by the forces of history and geography, which gives societies varying inclinations that become more evident in times of crises. It is this diversity that nations can learn from, to support future preparedness.

Tej Parikh is a global public policy analyst and journalist. He was previously an associate editor and reporter for The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh. He tweets @tejparikh90.