Luke Dray / Getty Images; Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP via Getty Images; Mohd Rasfan / AFP; Getty Images
On Monday, the United States reached a heartbreaking 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.
However, widespread death from COVID-19 is not necessarily unavoidable.
Data from Johns Hopkins University show that some countries have had fewer cases and fewer deaths per capita. Inhabitant. The United States, for example, has had 152 deaths per year. 100,000 people against 0.03 in Burundi and 0.04 in Taiwan.
There are many reasons for these differences between countries, but a study in Lancet Planetary health published last month suggests that a key factor may be cultural.
The study looks at “loose” nations – those with relaxed social norms and fewer rules and restrictions – and “tight” nations, those with stricter rules and restrictions and tougher disciplinary measures. And it found that “loose” nations had five times more cases (7,132 cases per million people against 1,428 per million) and over eight times more deaths from COVID-19 (183 deaths per million people against 21 per million ) than “tight” countries during the first ten months of the pandemic.
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Michele Gelfand, lead author of the study and professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in intercultural psychology, published previous work on strict and loose rules in Science and in a book from 2018 Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.
Gelfand says her previous research suggested that tight cultures may be better equipped to respond to a global pandemic than loose cultures because their citizens may be more willing to cooperate with rules, and that the pandemic “is the first time we have been able to examine how countries around the world are responding to the same collective threat at the same time.”
For Lancet article, researchers examined data from 57 countries in the fall of 2020 using the online database “Our World in Data,” which provides daily updates on COVID-19 cases and deaths. They paired this information with previous research that classified each of the countries on a scale of cultural density or looseness. The results revealed that nations categorized as looser – such as the United States, Brazil and Spain – experienced significantly more cases and deaths from COVID-19 by October 2020 than countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, which have much tighter cultures.
NPR talks to Gelfand about the results and about how understanding the concepts of “looser” and “tighter” nations can lead to measures that help prevent COVID-19 cases and deaths as the pandemic continues.
This interview is edited for length and clarity.
How did your previous research bring you to your current findings about the pandemic?
One of the things I have looked at for many years is how closely cultures adhere to social norms. All cultures have social norms that are kind of unwritten rules of social behavior. We do not turn backwards in elevators. We do not start singing loudly in cinemas. And we behave like that because it helps us coordinate with other people, to help our community function. [Norms] is really the glue that holds us together.
One thing we learned during our previous work is that some cultures adhere to social norms quite strictly. And these differences are not random. Tight cultures tend to have had a lot of threats in their stories from Mother Nature, such as disasters, famines and pathogen outbreaks, and non-natural threats such as invasions of their territory. And the idea is that when you have a lot of collective threat, you need strict rules. They help people coordinate and predict each other’s behaviors. So in a way, you can think about it from an evolutionary perspective that the following rules help us survive chaos and crisis.
Can you change a culture to make it tighter?
Yes, but you need leadership to tell you that this is a really dangerous situation. And you need people from the bottom up to be willing to sacrifice some of the freedom of rules to protect the whole country. And that’s what’s happening in New Zealand, where they had few cases and few deaths per. Million, and where they really are very egalitarian. My interpretation is that people said look like, “We all have to follow the rules to keep people safe.”
Can you give us some examples of how tight and loose cultures work when there is no pandemic?
Tight cultures have a lot of order and discipline – they have much less crime and more surveillance [citizens’] behavior and [more] security personnel and police per. inhabitant. Loose cultures struggle with order.
Loose cultures corner the market with openness to people of different races and religions and are far more creative in terms of idea generation and ability to think outside the box. Tight cultures struggle with openness.
Do you think it is possible to tighten up as needed?
Yes, absolutely. I mean, I would call it ambidexterity – the ability to tighten up when there is an objective threat and loosen up when the threat diminishes. People who do not like the idea of tightening will have to understand that this is temporary, and the faster we tighten, the faster it will reduce the threat, and the faster we can get back to our freedom-loving behavior.
I imagine, however, that people are worried about the long-term consequences of tightening up.
We should not confuse authoritarianism with density.
Following rules regarding the use of masks and social distance helps us get back to opening up the economy faster and save our freedom. And we can also look at other cultures that have been able to open up with greater success, such as. Taiwan. Increased self-regulation and [abidance of] physical distance, wearing masks and avoiding large crowds allowed the country to keep both the level of infection and mortality low without closing the economy completely. We need to think of this as being situation specific with regard to following certain types of rules.
It requires the use of cultural intelligence to understand when we apply density and when we apply looseness. And my optimistic view is that we need to learn to communicate better about threats, how to push people to follow rules so that people understand the danger but also feel empowered to deal with it.[In the U.S., for example, we] need to have national unity to cope with the collective threat, so that we as a nation are ready to come together as before in other collected threats, such as. after 9/11.
Fran Kritz is a Washington-DC health policy reporter who has contributed to Washington Post and Kaiser Health News. Find her on Twitter: @fkritz