The COVID-19 Outbreak Highlights Cultural Differences In East & West

The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted some of key cultural differences between the East and West as each civilization’s many states struggle in their own ways to contain the virus. China and South Korea, despite being some among the worst hit by the global pandemic, have managed comparatively better than Western states such as the US and Italy. This curious observation raises questions about the role that culture plays in all of this and is worthy of discussing more in depth.

Before beginning, it should be said that no such thing as a hierarchy of cultures exists and that they’re all equally important to human civilization. Idiosyncrasies naturally abound because of social diversity, which was shaped by millennia of historical experiences, especially those in the relatively recent past of the last century or two. It’s these experiences — some shared to various extents, others somewhat unique — which greatly contributed to the plethora of cultures that enrich everyone on the planet to this day.

It’s admittedly an oversimplification to group the world into Eastern and Western cultures, but the purpose of doing so in the context of this article is to highlight the influence of culture in COVID-19 containment efforts. Eastern cultures are generally characterized by strict discipline and obedience to authority, whether the head of the family or the state, so this explains why many Chinese and South Koreans dutifully obeyed their governments and more or less complied with their containment orders.

In addition, these two countries serve as perfect examples of those which undertook far-reaching proactive measures to stem the spread of this disease. Those governments, especially China’s, are much more centralized than Western ones — again, owing to culture and historical experience. This better equipped their authorities with the management skills to handle an unexpected event such as COVID-19, which many are nowadays describing as a “black swan” because of how suddenly it appeared and the massive impact that it’s having.

In the US and Italy however, there’s been a growing trend of skepticism towards the authorities and a deeply held belief in individual rights, the latter of which some believe are being infringed upon by those governments’ belated containment measures such as shutting down cultural facilities and even recommending against anything other than limited exposure to public places. Some of their citizens aren’t complying with these requests (which in some cases are orders), and that’s making it more difficult to stop the virus.

What’s needed in the West is what will assuredly be a painful change of thinking whereby people must begin to realize their responsibility to everyone else instead of focusing so much as they’ve historically done on their own individual rights. Some of their governments have also been loath follow their Eastern counterparts’ example for these very same reasons, which will have to eventual change if mankind is to defeat the virus while minimizing its total number of victims. Simply put, the West can learn a lot from the East.

The purpose of this observation isn’t to be condescending, but to raise awareness about the importance of being careful during serious times of uncertainty such as this one. Going about life as if nothing happened isn’t the solution at all, though panicking would be even worse because this destabilizing sentiment might spread throughout society much faster than COVID-19 ever could. The consequences of that happening are already seen in some Western countries such as Australia where shoppers can’t find toilet paper because of hoarders.

Mixed China and Europe flag, three dimensional render, illustrationEastern countries haven’t really experienced that because of their people’s innate cultural characteristics of stoicism, discipline, and obedience to authority whereby neither they nor their governments panicked, thus ensuring that the situation remained calm, albeit still socially difficult given the quarantine measures in place. Western countries should encourage everyone to change their habits like Italy is attempting to do through its recent public awareness messages against hugging and kissing for example, and only then can everyone be safe.

Source: OneWorld

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  1. Reality is not so simple. Some authoritarianism interferes with technological progress in medicine. Even though China is more authoritarian than the US, China is more willing to take action with little regard for regulatory caution. As a result, China is able to build new things quicker. Respect for authority is a cultural value and government gets obedience because people are not thinking by themselves. Authorities in China are helped by the slightly higher average IQ of east Asians, but on average are less creative.

    In the US, authority is supposed to protect people, but good intentions interfere with good results. Regulations interfere with progress. When Americans disagree with government decisions they are more willing to disobey directions, but because of increasing government control of education, fewer Americans are capable of useful independent thinking.

    For example, ozone therapy is cheaper than pharmaceuticals and often more effective. Most states allow it, but MDs tend to know nothing about it, due to government control of their medical education. Still a few Americans who can think will act and be healthy; while in China, unless authorities happen to be enlightened (as they tend to be in Germany), the whole country suffers.

    Concerning “individual rights”:

    If rights exist they would apply to all natural persons, whether those persons are socially isolated or socially connected.
    So, rights would not be “individual” but “natural”.

    In reality, rights in the positive sense don’t exist. Natural justice does not require positive action, and can only prohibit unjust action.
    Neither are there negative rights, because that implies a positive obligation on the part of others to enforce those rights.

  2. Some dodgy premises:

    “Eastern cultures are generally characterized by strict discipline and obedience to authority.., so this explains why many Chinese and South Koreans dutifully obeyed their governments.”

    There’s a better way to explain Chinese ‘obedience’: China’s culture, over the course of 2,000 years, has developed enormous respect for its government because it is made up of highly intelligent, competent people with high moral standards.

    “Those governments, especially China’s, are much more centralized than Western ones.” Not so. China’s government is the most decentralized on earth. Says Pierre Landry[1], “Central reformers direct and local state agents improvise. It is this paradoxical mixture of top-down direction and bottom-up improvisation that lays the foundation for the coevolutionary processes of radical change… One would expect the PRC to be one of the most centralized countries. Instead, Central government intervenes through goals, grants, praise, and promotions and China’s observed level of decentralization is consistent with the behavior of a federal democracy.”

    [1] Decentralized Authoritarianism in China. Pierre F Landry. Cambridge University Press.

  3. Whether centralized or decentralized, China is more authoritarian than the west. In this case, China gov’t authority suppressed information when it first became available in late November. Had they acted and warned others sooner, the costs of the epidemic would be much less.

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