As we have seen in the last couple of weeks, each country is tackling the Corona virus outbreak differently. The initial reactions are the same — fear and panic. But then, measures are deployed with different speed and different urgency. If the measures are different the results will be different. What I’ll be exploring in this article is how cultural differences between countries will determine the likelihood of success in the battle against the virus.
If the model I have created is right, the US is a bomb set to explode in the next couple of weeks, and China will ride it out. To understand why, and how other countries will succeed or fail, let’s begin.
Winning the short game
In the beginning of the outbreak such things as quality of the health care system, testing availability, political leadership etc. will determine how many get sick and how many survive.
One important factor is also if your country is early or late in the game. Italy was caught by surprise. Other countries that have a few weeks head start on the disease can deploy more radical measures earlier in the spread cycle.
The long game is another story
The factors that mean winning the short game, matter less in what I call the long game — or rather the End Game.
Winning over the disease in the long run is ultimately about getting the transmission rate down below 1. When it goes below 1, the growth of new infections stops and eventually it goes down to zero. And the world seems to agree that the most effective method to achieve this is what we now call “social distancing”.
So here’s the idea that’s been brewing in my mind the last week:
All countries and cultures understand the concept of social distancing, in theory. But because of cultural differences, countries will be more or less successful at defining, implementing and enforcing social distancing practices.
How do we then find out what the cultural differences are? And if we do — can we can predict who will be successful and who will be unsuccessful?
Enter Geert Hofstede
Probably, the most widely known and acknowledged framework for understanding cultural differences between nations is Geert Hofstede’s model — “The six dimensions of national culture”. Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist who, with others, researched cultural differences between nations, companies and groups. In the 70’s they presented the 6D model, and it has been used and refined since.
The model says that cultural development of nations can be viewed in six dimensions:
- Power Distance Index (high versus low).
- Individualism Versus Collectivism.
- Masculinity Versus Femininity.
- Uncertainty Avoidance Index (high versus low).
- Long- Versus Short-Term Orientation.
- Indulgence Versus Restraint.
Let’s look at the COVID19 challenge we have before us:
A. Authorities must issue and uphold measures of social distancing.
B. Citizens must see these measures as adequate and must put the compliance to these rules before their own self-interest.
If this is our challenge, then which of Hofstede’s dimensions would be able to predict the ability of a nation to succeed with points A & B? Let’s take a closer look at the two first ones.
Power Distance Index
This dimension measures the acceptance of a hierarchical structure in the society. In nations with a high degree of Power Distance people accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and authority is not questioned. Central American countries, Malaysia and the Philippines rank high here. Israel, Denmark and Austria rank low, for example.
Individualism Versus Collectivism.
In an individualistic society people are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. The concerns and preferences of the individual come before those of the larger societal groups such as neighbourhoods, cities, clubs, regions etc.
On the opposite side, Collectivism, means that you give your loyalty and decision making power to bigger groups and in exchange they take care of you.
For example The US and Australia are very individualistic societies. Taiwan and Indonesia are very collective.
I believe these are the two cultural dimensions that most likely will predict how nations will deal with questions A and B — how a society directs social distancing and to what degree citizens follow those directives. As a consequence, I believe factors 3–6 have less predictive power. This is my basic assumption for this article.
If you want to understand and review all six dimensions (and see if you agree with me), you can find them here.
CCRS — A formula for social distancing prediction
My hypothesis then becomes:
The more collectivistic a nation is and the more a nation believes in and accepts hierarchy the more likely it is that:
A. Authorities feel they are able to issue social distancing orders.
B.Citizens will feel obliged to follow those orders.
Next, I combine those two factors into a single number and then rank countries high to low risk. Each of Hofstede’s indexes go from 0–100. A high Power Distance index means a country (China for example) accepts hierarchy. A high score on the Individualism/Collectivism index means it’s a highly individualistic society (UK for example).
Since the Power Distance index and the Individualism/Collectivism index are “reversed” vs. one another for the purpose of my combined index, I had to “reverse” one of them, that is I subtracted that number from 100. Take my own country, Sweden for example.
Individualism/Collectivism index: 71
Power Distance index: 31
Combined score: 71 + (100–31) = 140
I call this the COVID Cultural Risk Score (CCRS)
This puts Sweden in 12th place from the top of my list, meaning it’s one of the least likely countries to be able to pull social distancing off, since we are a very non-hierarchical and individualistic society. And therefore at high risk.
Then I took all the countries listed in the Worldometer Corona virus tracking. They had 189 countries listed on March 22.
87 of those countries or territories did not have an entry in Hofstede’s list of cultural dimensions. The net list became 102 countries.
According to this model the top 10, with the highest risk to fail, are:
- New Zealand
- United Kingdom
- United States
(Bad news for me, I am Swedish but live in Australia)
And the top 10 countries that will have most success with social distancing are:
Let’s look at some other sub lists of particular interest. It would be interesting to understand how the world’s 10 most populous countries will fare, (COVID Cultural Risk Score in parenthesis).
- China (40)
- India (71)
- United States (151)
- Indonesia (36)
- Pakistan (59)
- Brazil (69)
- Nigeria (43)
- Bangladesh (40)
- Russia (46)
- Mexico (49)
If you are an alert reader, you will have noticed that there is only one country that appears on the list of top 10 countries at risk AND on the top 10 list of the world’s most populous countries — The United States.
A life lost in a small country is worth as much as a life lost in a big country. But if you consider the global number of lives lost, the combination of a country’s size and the (in)ability to succeed with social distancing matters. A lot.
Does this graph seem familiar?
These are boring numbers, so I wanted to create a visual that captures the impact of what I am trying to say here.
Therefore I took all countries with a COVID Cultural Risk Score (CCRS) above 100. This resulted in a list with 27 countries. Then I multiplied the CCRS with the population number of that country, which resulted in what I call:
the Total Mortality Risk Score (TMRS).
This is the resulting graph. Seems oddly familiar — doesn’t it?
Go and check the current case numbers and you will find that the top of both lists contain very much the same countries. Except (when this article was written )the US hasn’t taken off just yet.
You can access all the data including formulas and the whole model in Google Sheets. If you want to you can duplicate it and elaborate further on it.
Surely there must be more to it than social distancing?
It is obvious that not only these cultural factors will determine success at the end.
For example, a country with a weak communications infrastructure will have a hard time getting the policies out to people, no matter how committed. Countries with high mobility will see a more rapid spread.This we have already seen. In densely populated urban areas social distancing will be harder to achieve than in my own country, Sweden, for example. Religious and other cultural habits will determine how close people normally get and how much they touch each other. And of course access to high quality health care will be important.
If you agree that social distancing is a key factor for long term victory.
You agree that the ability to sustain such practices varies with culture.
A model that describes cultural differences between countries will have some degree of predictive power of the final outcome.
Last but not least, the final stage will (hopefully) be the rapid deployment of an effective vaccine. But before that, many countries will have gone through what will seem to them like “the end of the world”.
And it’s already happening
From a privacy point of view, the draconian measures taken by the governments in China and South Korea to track individuals would be unthinkable in a western society. And I think people in the West are not ready to have their doors welded shut just yet. But, already we have seen the effectiveness of these measures in China, where few infections have been recorded in the last week.
At the other end of the spectrum, is this quote from a high school student in the US who could not dream of missing spring break in Florida :
— “If I get Corona — So be it”.
That’s the viewpoint of a person in a truly individualistic society. — “I do what’s best for me. What’s best for society is not my problem.” We have also heard of Corona parties in Germany where young people sing corona chants and mock the rules.
In the part of the world where I live right now — the police had to close Bondi beach this weekend when people flocked in thousands to catch the last bit of summer. Happily ignoring social distancing rules in place.
And it’s not only the common people. Both Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump, has publicly ignored social distancing.
- “If the leaders don’t do it — Why should we?”
Let’s hope I’m wrong and everyone, not just the authoritarian cultures, can get these social distancing practices on the road and make them stick.
History will prove me wrong. Or right.
Final note: Is this science or not?
- I have only chosen two of Hofstede’s 6 factors by my own subjective choice.
- Why Hofstede — There must be other models?
- I have created formulas that I just “made up” myself.
- When creating the last graph I chose the top 27 countries at risk (why these 27?).
In general — these subjective choices made it easier for me to illustrate my point, but they wouldn’t pass the filter of a true scientific scrutiny.
But I am not trying to develop a risk free Corona Vaccine here. I am only trying to use models and data that we already have, and combine these to create new insights for a phenomenon which is new to us, and therefore hard to understand. In my eyes this justifies my approach.
You should be aware that Hofstede’s model has received quite a lot of criticism. In particular, criticists argue that “context & personality trump culture”, ie. someone’s personality traits, and especially the current situation drive behaviour way more than the cultural traits. (Thank you Bart Schutz for pointing this out).
My argument why Hofstede’s model is still relevant in this case is that I am trying to understand the relative impact on a collective level between countries. Even if there are individual patterns/behaviours, on an average country A will exhibit a certain trait or behaviour more often/seldom than country B.
So, if you think there is something to what I am trying to say here, but have objections or new ideas. Let’s work together to make it even better.
Credits and links:
Thank you for valuable input and proofreading
Kajsa Ekman (SE — AU)
Einar Ekman (SE-AU) — Illustration
Delia Dent (AU)
Per Grankvist (SE)
Ton Wesseling (NL)
Bart Schutz (NL)
Article updated on March 26, based on feedback from Bart Schutz.