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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Esther Brown: Two worlds, same pandemic: Lessons to learn from culture and COVID-19 in Taiwan and the U.S.

By Esther Brown

I’ve spent this year living in two countries with starkly different responses to the virus. I left the U.S. in March for five months, and after a mandatory 14-day complete isolation quarantine, I stepped into an entirely different world. In Taiwan, I witnessed people living relatively unaffected by the virus: businesses are open, schools are in-person and the economy that has remained intact.

Taiwan has had remarkable success against COVID-19. Despite being shut out of the World Health Organization (WHO), the country started producing 19 million face masks per day in May, and has donated millions of masks to countries around the world. In late October, the country reached 200 days without a locally transmitted case, a landmark that Time magazine called “the world’s best virus record.” This lasted until late December, only to be broken by a foreign airline pilot.

When the outbreak first began, I worried about my family living in Taiwan. Located merely 110 miles off the coast of China — less than the distance between Spokane and the Tri-Cities — I thought that surely Taiwan was at risk. Unconsciously, I assumed that I would be safer here in Washington. I was wrong.

As of Jan. 1, Taiwan reported 802 total COVID-19 cases, the majority of them imported cases. Washington state reported 250,821 cases. This is despite the fact that Taiwan’s population is more than three times higher than Washington (23.8 million versus 7.7 million), and also has a higher population density (1,742 versus 113.4 people per square mile).

There are many factors that have contributed to Taiwan’s success against the virus, but what gets overlooked far too often is culture.

Individualism and collectivism during COVID-19

There is an underlying cultural nuance that we cannot ignore when comparing countries’ responses to the virus, particularly responses among the general public. The difference between Taiwan’s collectivistic culture and the U.S.’s individualistic culture has resulted in countless saved lives in Taiwan.

Individualism places value on the needs of the individual, while collectivism values the needs of the group; an “I” versus “we” mentality. Hofstede Insights, an organization that has analyzed national culture based on extensive research, measures countries’ levels of individualism. Taiwan scores 17, which indicates a collectivistic society, while the U.S. scores 91, one of the highest levels of individualism in the world.

The Taiwanese government has implemented a number of policies that have been effective against the virus, such as travel and quarantine regulations. However, in every country, there is a heavy responsibility placed on average citizens to engage in behaviors that keep others safe. This is an essential area Taiwan has excelled.

On Feb. 6, 2020, Taiwan initiated a mask-rationing system that allowed everyone to access medical masks through their National Health Insurance. This, along with communication about masking benefits from Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control, helped spur widespread use of masks in public places. The average citizen readily participated in collective measures, like masking and social distancing, to help combat the virus.

A study in the British Journal of Social Psychology found that social distancing and hygiene practices are more likely to be followed by people who adopt a collectivistic mindset. Even before the pandemic, wearing a mask was commonly practiced in Taiwan if one felt sick, a habit that demonstrates respect for the welfare of those around you. A collectivistic society emphasizes a group’s well-being over individual desires or comfort.

Preventative actions taken by every person in a community are far more effective than leaving it up to individual preference. The Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) continued to encourage Americans not to wear masks unless they were sick or caring for someone who was sick until April, undermining the U.S. effort to curb COVID-19’s spread.

Once masking policies were implemented, a troubling amount of anti-mask rhetoric pushed back against guidelines, despite research supporting the effectiveness of mask-wearing. This is rooted in the belief that mask mandates are an infringement on personal freedom. Rather than acting in a way that benefits everyone, individualism has taught Americans that personal desires, feelings and comfort outweigh community needs.

Though individualism is not inherently a harmful worldview — in fact, it’s often correlated with economic growth — this pandemic has revealed the damaging impact of its selfish nature. The desire for individual choice hampered any possibilities of a collective action in a time that it was needed most.

In a study from this August, researchers found that compliance with state lockdown orders was reduced by 41 percent in counties with higher levels of individualism. Similarly, we can use existing data to consider the correlation between individualism and COVID-19 cases on a global scale. Attached are two graphs that illustrate countries with the lowest and highest COVID-19 cases per capita, and their levels of individualism according to Hofstede Insights (countries without a Hofstede Insight individualism ranking were not included).

Collectivism is prevalent in countries with fewer than 500 cases per capita. For countries with more than 40,000 cases per capita, there is an even mix of individualistic and collectivist cultures. While incomplete, the data seems to suggest an inherently better response among collectivistic countries, and that individualistic countries have had a more difficult time in containing the virus. However, it’s important to note that some countries have fewer confirmed cases due to limited testing and resources.

Adopting a cultural perspective

I am not arguing for collectivism over individualism. Even if a large cultural shift were possible, it would take far too long to have any effect on the response to this pandemic. Rather, understanding cultural influences and using that insight to create strategic communication for the public would be beneficial to health officials and policymakers.

For example, take the strategic communication of Whitworth University, a school of about 3,000 students. Whitworth has managed to keep its campus open and have the majority of its classes in-person this semester. As of Jan. 8, there were only 12 active cases and 149 resolved cases spanning about four months of school.

Despite the cultural undertone of American individualism, Whitworth has been able to shape individual behaviors into a joint community effort, partly because of their communication. University messages to students emphasize the individual benefits of complying with safety regulations. For example, for students to receive the education they desire, they must act in a way that allows the university to continue in-person teaching. Or, to return home safely without risk of exposure to family members, students must continue to stay vigilant until the end of the semester.

Whitworth’s efforts have shown that it is possible for an organization in an individualistic society to come together for the collective welfare of the community. Through strategic communication, Whitworth has been able to influence members within their organization, and—due to its relatively small size—has even started creating a collectivistic narrative. As Whitworth President Beck Taylor told students, “Pirates care about community. Pirates care about each other.”

It’s crucial that public officials strategize ways to use their influence and platform to shape American society and overcome individualistic mindsets. The director of the CDC, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, warned that this winter will be “the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation” unless Americans start to embrace safety precautions like wearing masks and social distancing.

Though vaccines are becoming more available, the U.S. cannot afford for the public to disregard regulations. Even with a plan to vaccinate 60 percent of Taiwan’s population, Taiwanese authorities have urged the public to continue to follow safety precautions to prevent a spike in cases.

This nation’s COVID-19 death total has surpassed half of its 1918 influenza epidemic death total. If Americans continue to ignore individual responsibility, like the “mask slackers” in 1918, the nation will have to reckon with even more devastating numbers in the months to come.

Esther Brown is the arts and culture editor of The Whitworthian, the Whitworth University student newspaper.

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