The response to the COVID-19 pandemic by various nations around the world has exposed vividly the differences in the cultural values of Eastern and Western societies. This is very valuable for me as I teach Cross Cultural Variations at a college in the U.S. and can use recent examples that illustrate clearly to my students what the explicit and nuanced differences are.
I am originally from Singapore and grew up having acquired traditional Asian values. I had to adapt to Western culture from the many years I spent in Europe and North America. The question I am posed most frequently is why have Asian countries been more effective in stopping the spread of the virus when compared with Europe and the United States. Sometimes this question is followed up with the rather unexpected “What can the West learn from the East?”
East Asian countries had less time than those in the West to prepare to face the pandemic as it originated in China and its immediate neighbors were the first to feel the brunt of the attack. Yet, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Singapore and even Vietnam and Cambodia managed the pandemic better than much advanced and richer countries of the West. Death rates per million as reported by Johns Hopkins University were much higher in the U.S., UK, Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, Germany and Sweden, all considered "First World" countries.
Discounting existing governmental inaptitude, all nations require their citizens’ cooperation in controlling the spread of the virus. This includes a general lockdown for an extended period of time where citizens are required to stay at home and slow the spread of the disease among their family, friends, and community. Large gatherings are to be avoided. This is to be achieved by closure of schools, malls, shops, bars, restaurants, theaters, public transport, places of worship, casinos, sporting events and work places. Individuals are required to wear face coverings, keep social distance with others and practice strict personal hygiene. People are also required to take tests even if asymptomatic, and if found positive, to quarantine voluntarily. They are further required to provide information about everyone they had contact with who could be traced and isolated to prevent continuing spread of the virus.
The response in Western societies has been startling. A large number are defying lockdowns and there is a refusal to wear masks and maintain physical distance. Protests and rallies are rampant against closures of pubs and churches, for example. There is defiance against curtailed travel. Testing and sharing of personal data to allow tracing is frowned upon.
Eastern societies, on the other hand, have been more accepting of the demands imposed on them. People are generally complying with extended lockdown requirements. Face coverings and social distancing have become the norm. Testing is commonplace and citizens are voluntarily quarantining themselves. They are also willingly providing details of the people they have been in contact with so that they can be traced and isolated.
The massive disparity in Eastern and Western responses to the pandemic lies in their cultural values. Western “individualistic” culture puts the needs and desires of the individual the priority whereas Eastern “collectivist” culture pushes societal needs to the forefront. Personal freedom and individual rights such as the right to personal privacy, to defy authority and independence takes precedence over interdependence. In a collectivist culture people might sacrifice their own comfort for the greater good of everyone else, be more accepting of authority and comply with strict enforcement of regulation more amicably.
I term East Asian culture as "soft" as it is rather passive when compared with aggressive "hard" Western culture. Cultural values stem from both religion and tradition. In the three main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the individual, God, and the universe are highly separate from each other. They believe in a judging, paternal, fully external god to which the individual and nature are subordinate. In East Asia there is no external god and the values promulgated are: harmony in all spheres of life (Shinto); wu-wei which is living with nature effortlessly (Daoism); social order with shared responsibilities and obligations (Confucianism); compassion, respect for others, and perfection through personal and communal endeavor (Buddhism).
An outbreak is a community problem. You cannot address it as an individual. Cooperation of all is a necessity, for if one is infected, all are infected. Asians are more likely to comply with government orders and trust their leaders in line with their cultural values. The trust in the experts and the bureaucracy is relatively high. This is not the case in the West as the frequent protests illustrate. I plan to tell my students that in the fight against COVID-19, soft trumps hard, pun intended.
Dr LiLee Ng is a Marie Curie Scholar and Assistant Professor of Strategy and International Business at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith. She has lived and worked in Asia, Europe and America and is fluent in English, Chinese and Icelandic.© Japan Today