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When culture clashes with Covid-19

MIT panelists examine the roles of social norms in countries’ differing responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
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A new edition of MIT's Starr Forum, hosted by the Center for International Studies on Tuesday, June 23, examined national cultures and the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The panel featured, clockwise from top left: Suzanne Berger, MIT’s inaugural John M. Deutch Institute Professor; Peter Krause PhD '11, an associate professor of political science at Boston College; Yasheng Huang, the Epoch F...
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A new edition of MIT's Starr Forum, hosted by the Center for International Studies on Tuesday, June 23, examined national cultures and the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The panel featured, clockwise from top left: Suzanne Berger, MIT’s inaugural John M. Deutch Institute Professor; Peter Krause PhD '11, an associate professor of political science at Boston College; Yasheng Huang, the Epoch Foundation Professor of International Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management; and Chappell Lawson, an associate professor of political science at MIT and director of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program.
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In China, wearing masks during an epidemic is a readily accepted practice — unlike the situation in, say, the United States or some European countries, where the issue of mask-wearing is revealing civic and political fault lines. To what extent are these differences attributable to the “culture” of each country? And how much have widespread social norms affected the responses of different countries during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Those were among the leading questions driving an MIT public forum on Tuesday, as leading scholars from the Institute examined the connections between social practices and national responses to the pandemic. Although, to be sure, it is difficult to generalize about national cultures, as the scholars noted.

“Most scholars these days are extremely reluctant to ascribe outcomes to culture,” said MIT political scientist Chappell Lawson, who moderated the event.

Still, Lawson added, during a time of a global public health crisis, it is at least possible to ask how social practices have fed into the varying responses around the world: “The basic question related to culture is how do the habits and mindsets of a group of people — what Alexis de Tocqueville once called morays — affect what people do in the public sphere. In this case, how do those beliefs and norms affect what different countries did in response to the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus?”

Under these terms, “Some of the choices the governments have made may be a product of culture,” added Lawson, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Political Science, who also directs MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI).

Yasheng Huang, a professor of management at MIT, contended that cultural effects are real and significant, even if they can be difficult to quantify.

“It’s hard to study [culture], it’s hard to measure, but we should try harder, rather than saying it doesn’t matter,” said Huang, who is the Epoch Foundation Professor of International Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and faculty director of the MIT-China program. “I think culture matters tremendously in terms of this response, as well as the outcome.”

Huang added: “One way to think about culture is, people act on certain norms without thinking about those norms every day.” That includes, yes, mask-wearing.

“In East Asia, nobody questions the value of wearing masks, and people began to wear masks very early on, without the government mandate,” says Huang, noting that “people in Hong Kong began to wear masks on their own in late December and early January.”

For culture to connect with policy, however, there needs to be public trust in government, said political scientist Suzanne Berger, a longtime expert on French politics, who contrasted France’s faltering public response with Germany’s greater success.

“In observing the cases of France and Germany, what we can recognize is that the most vital national supply is trust,” said Berger, the John M. Deutch Institute Professor at MIT. “Everything that’s involved in dealing with Covid, contact tracing and tracking, testing, all these really depend on trust, and that’s what’s been sadly depleted in the French case.”

The discussion, titled “When Culture Meets Covid-19,” was the latest public panel from MIT’s Starr Forum, an event series hosted by the Center for International Studies. 

Trustbusting

To see why culture and trust matter so much in the pandemic response, Berger suggested, consider that, in material and institutional terms, France would appear to be well-situated to deal with a pandemic.

“I thought that Covid was exactly the kind of crisis that France should excel in managing,” said Berger, noting that it has a highly regarded national health service, significant medical research laboratories, and a strong central government.

Moreover, Berger added, referencing the work of French sociologist Michel Crozier, “The French are very reluctant to observe the authority of peers … so one should have anticipated that the French would feel right about [a] national authority making the rules about masks, social distancing, and testing.”

Instead, Berger noted, the French response has stumbled from the start. France had destroyed a large portion of its mask stockpile prior to 2020; the ensuing shortage led to mixed messages about mask-wearing, while controversies also erupted about therapeutics. As a result, Berger noted, just 39 percent of people in an April poll claimed they had confidence in the government’s ability to handle the crisis, down from 55 percent in mid-March.

“The polarization which we’ve seen divide the United States over how to deal with Covid took form in France, too,” Berger said.

Those kinds of divisions are evident in a variety of other countries, noted panelist Peter Krause PhD ’11, an associate professor of political science at Boston College and a Middle East expert, who talked about the situation in Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. As different as those countries all are, Krause noted, the reaction to pandemic policies varies among social, ethnic, and religious subgroups: “It’s not just country-wide, but within each country … you see these legacies of a lack of trust in the government,” Krause said.

Techno-cultures?

The situation in China is quite different, since China’s authoritarian rulers provide less room for public dissent. However, Huang said, he believes there is a tendency toward public compliance in the country that exists apart from the form of the government.

“It is not right to attribute the ability to lock down an entire city or province solely to the coercive power of the government, even thought there’s a lot of that as well,” said Huang. “We need to acknowledge the coercive power, but we also need to say that there is a cultural compenent in accepting … the government policy.”

More specifically, Huang added, in China, Japan, and South Korea “people there automatically think about technology as a solution,” making them relatively receptive to some of the initiatives used to battle the spread of Covid-19.

In response to audience questions, Huang indicated he was relatively comfortable generalizing about cultural similarities among different East Asian countries — but noted that we should distinguish between cultural affinities and the political responses of different countries, which have varied considerably. South Korea, which is a democracy, did not institute Chinese-style lockdowns, for instance, but developed an extensive system of early testing and contact tracing that has limited the spread of Covid-19.

In China, as Huang also noted during the question-and-answer session, the government response to the new virus faltered in its early stages, in late 2019, as officials initially did not acknowledge the potential severity of the new outbreak. In each country, though, Huang suggested that cultural norms have helped compliance with government actions.

“I think in the Chinese culture, and East Asian culture, there is quite a bit of trust,” Huang said. “Sometimes it’s not earned, sometimes it’s not deserved, but it’s there to begin with.”

One final difference between East Asia and the rest of the globe regarding Covid-19, he noted, is recent history, which has also shaped public attitudes significantly.

“One difference between Asia, and Europe and the United States is that Asia experienced SARS,” Huang said. “China experienced SARS, Hong Kong Experienced SARS, Taiwan experienced SARS, and that searing experience shaped the mentality,” informing public acceptance of a forceful Covid-19 response.

This changes everything?

During a question-and-answer session, the panelists were queried about what kinds of long-lasting cultural changes might arise from the Covid-19 pandemic, and they suggested a variety of possible lasting trends.

“Basically I think it’s going to be a shock that promotes nationalism,” said Berger. “That is, a desire for more protection from the state, a desire for closing up the borders, a desire for having more production take place within national boundaries.”

In the Middle East, Krause said, “I think the impact is going to be somewhat lessened because of the smaller number of cases, but … one of the key areas that you look at is social trust between different ethnic groups.”

Across countries, he added, “One of the things that I’ll keep an eye on is that, when you have pandemics like this, certain populations can be accused of being the carriers of the disease, and face greater discrimination going forward, so that can break down some of the bonds of social trust. That will be, potentially, one of the key legacies, if that happens.”

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