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  • Sylvia Gonner

Will COVID-19 Change Our Cultures?

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

With a virus that has spread around the globe, it is more apparent than ever how cultural differences are impacting the policies being implemented by government and how individuals are responding. The way different countries are addressing the pandemic is a true reflection of their cultural beliefs and their people’s way of life. Yet the extreme nature of this health and economic crisis is also challenging traditional cultural norms. People around the world have no choice but to change their behaviors and adapt to new realities. Personally, I can’t help but wonder if these newly formed habits will alter some of our distinct national identities forever. Or will each culture go back to its old ways once the pandemic has subsided?

Politically speaking, when various countries around the world were first faced with the threat of the coronavirus, policy makers reacted with different and often contrasting responses that were representative of their cultures. The Chinese, in an attempt to save face, were initially in denial but then quick to implement strict control measures when the virus continued to spread at dangerous rates. The Italians were reactionary and scrambled to regain control. Germany had a hands-off, decentralized response, and, not surprisingly, the Dutch took a contrarian position. Finally, in the United States we saw a largely politically infused, “fake news” with and air of immunity reaction to COVID-19.

Yet since then, most governments around the world have gone against their pre-disposed cultures in an effort to flatten the curve. Many have taken unprecedented actions such as shutting borders, restricting commerce, defining what is essential and non-essential, confining their societies in ways the world has never experienced before, and essentially reshaped the essence of what it means to be Chinese, Italian, American, etc.

In predominantly collectivist cultures, where society’s interests are instinctively put before the individual’s, requirements for social distancing, self-quarantines and lockdowns were not only quick to be mandated by governments, but are accepted and followed. In many Asian cultures, where the use of face masks is the norm during any flu season, people were ready to adopt safe health practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

By contrast in cultures that are predominantly individualistic, where personal independence and self-reliance take precedence over any obligations to the community, policies were introduced much more carefully so as not to infringe on the paramount civil liberties of their societies. Not surprisingly, decisions in the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, have been painfully slow and held up in political debates. To this day, guidelines issued by the US Center for Disease Control are faced with resistance. This includes my home state of Florida, where the governor still allows church service despite the stay-at-home order, and some residents are dubbed ‘COVIDidiots’ due to their lack of responsiveness to the crisis.

Additionally, societal differences such as people’s comfort with personal space and physical touch has shown to have another large impact on our response to COVID-19 around the world. Americans, who traditionally value their personal space, are more apt to adjust to the new norm of social-distancing. By contrast, social-distancing has drastically altered habits in my own European-native culture, where greeting friends and family with multiple kisses on the cheek is the cultural norm. It was disheartening to watch how such habit of close physical touch initially contributed to the fast spread of the virus in countries first impacted by the coronavirus such as Italy, Iran, and Spain.

As we all grapple with the realities of this pandemic, people around the world are also dealing with the underlying pain of our beautifully diverse cultures now slowly being altered. Things that seemed unimaginable just a month ago are becoming the new normal. It’s amazing how quickly we adapt, in our own way. In the United States, for the sake of society as a whole, activities now classified as non-essential are restricted in what feels like a fundamental un-American way. Yet people are managing it and quickly putting American ingenuity to the test. And despite Italy’s strict quarantine and its usual bustling streets now eerily silent, the beautiful sound of the Italian language can still be heard as people come together singing from their balconies.

Once the height of this pandemic is behind us, will old habits return? Or will our cultures be changed forever?

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