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Society & Culture

A Cultural Perspective on COVID-19

Aug 15, 2020
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

China is a young socialist country but it has 5,000 years of civilization behind it. The United States, the world’s largest developed country, is old by capitalist standards, with a history of less than 300 years.

At a time when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a few other American politicians are hysterically demonizing the Communist Party of China and sabotaging Sino-U.S. relations for partisan political gain, it is profoundly instructive to observe and analyze the interrelationship of culture with each country’s efforts to suppress the COVID-19 pandemic over the past few months.

As recent social and economic developments in the two countries show, China and the U.S. had the same challenge when it came to the pandemic, but they had different assessments of the coronavirus, and their approaches to dealing with it have been wildly different. Naturally, then, the results are also vastly different. It is interesting to note that many aspects of their suppression efforts are rooted in history and culture.

First, different attitudes toward wearing a face mask in the two countries originate in different traditional values. When health experts in the world have confirmed through research and clinical practice that wearing a mask is an effective way to prevent the person-to-person spread of the coronavirus, the Chinese quickly took up wearing them whenever they go outside or participate a social gathering. It is a traditional value in China to take pride in collectivism, under which people have been taught to consider not only of their own interests but those of others. As a result, widespread mask-wearing played an important role in containing the spread of the coronavirus.

Chinese people find it hard to understand why many Americans are so emotional when it comes to wearing a mask during the coronavirus crisis and why some people even hold rallies to protest wearing them in public places.

To find the answer, it may be helpful to look into the element of individualism in American culture. Americans who align strongly behind individualism tend to consider anything that might intrude on their right to make their own decisions as morally wrong. Individualism means living their own lives as they see fit, in isolation from others. Thus the question of wearing a mask becomes a highly personal and emotionally charged matter. They believe that no one has a right to tell them what to do.

Under such circumstances, it is essential that political leaders explain clearly how an individual could contribute greatly to the effective suppression of Covid-19 in his community or state by wearing a mask for the safety of himself and others. It’s unfortunate that in political circles Republicans and Democrats are divided on this issue. That has only made matters worse.

It was not until July 20, 2020 that President Trump tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask and encouraged his “patriotic” supporters to do the same. His change of position amid a politicized debate over masks came at a time when about 4 million coronavirus cases had been confirmed in the U.S., the most of any country in the world, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. Trump had scoffed at masks for months, but we suppose it’s never too late to improve.

Second, the performance of the government has varied widely in the two countries, in part because the governing systems differ. China exercised unified central leadership. When the coronavirus first cropped up in Wuhan in late December, Chinese leaders concentrated a counterforce, organizing more than 4,000 medical doctors and nurses from around the country to rush to Wuhan to treat patients.

China won a decisive victory in about two months with a growing number of patients who had recovered. New cases have been gradually reduced and finally virtually eliminated. In the process, China accumulated rich experience with such things as wide testing in high risk areas, and the principle of early discovery, early treatment. When sporadic cases occurred around the country in June, July and August, the situations were brought under control very quickly. Cases have been held below 1,000 with a very low death rate thanks to the efficient treatment.

By contrast, in the U.S. under its federal system of states, the fight was carried out with a combination of central leadership and a sharing of authority with levels of governments. States are playing the major role, with auxiliary support from the federal government. It turns out now, clearly, that due to the different assessments of the coronavirus in each state and different responses to the virus, the ability to contain the spread of the virus was hampered — if for no other reason than lack of aggression.

Even at the federal level there were differences between political leaders and medical experts over a variety of issues, which led to weak federal leadership. States turning in variable performances in following medical guidelines, as well as in the decision to reopen economic activity. As a result, a few states have seen spikes at different stages.

It is hard to believe that in the largest developed country with the best medical equipment and medical human resources in the world, the largest number of coronavirus patients and deaths have been recorded. Even more serious is that the worst may be yet to come. There may be no quick end.

Third, the two countries seem to have adopted different guiding principles and different ways of thinking in the fight against the coronavirus. In China, two firm principles were adopted — first of all, put people and their lives as the No. 1 priority, and regard the defeat of COVID-19 as a prerequisite for economic reopening.

China has successfully applied these two principles. Whenever and wherever cases have been discovered, utmost efforts have been made to effectively contain their spread and trace the source. Patients have been treated promptly, and fatalities have been held to the lowest possible level. China regards the strict control and elimination of the pandemic as the indispensable precondition for reopening the economy. Only when the pandemic is controlled can reopening go smoothly.

In the U.S., the situation varies across states. Some states have done a good job, while others have experience new spikes because of premature or unsafe reopening practices. As U.S. election will take place in less than 100 days, election politics also has made an impact on the fight against the coronavirus. Politicians honestly admit that both their approach to fighting COVID-19 and their choice of when and how to reopen the economy will affect their reelection chances. Events over the past few months have shown that overemphasis on reopening while neglecting the fight against the coronavirus is self-defeating.

An old saying might bear repeating: “More haste, less speed”. Hence, if one wishes to do a good job at reopening, he must first do a good job fighting the coronavirus.

Fourth, as an extension of the two countries’ political cultures, China and the U.S. have adopted strikingly different policies toward the World Health Organization, as well as toward international exchanges and cooperation.

It is well-known that China has stood for and made great efforts in promoting international exchanges and cooperation in fighting COVID-19, with close cooperation by the WHO. But the U.S., which has withdrawn from the WHO, refrains from official exchanges and cooperation with China and other countries that have not. It has terminated funding for the WHO.

Even worse, U.S. politicians have spread false information that the coronavirus came from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, contradicting the overwhelming conclusion by world health experts, including many in the U.S., that it originated naturally rather than artificially. Instead of increasing the effort to fight the pandemic at home, they’ve spent too much time and energy demonizing China and attempting to shift responsibility.

The outbreak and spread of the novel coronavirus constitutes an unprecedented challenge to the whole world. The pandemic is having lasting negative impact on the human living environment and on global social and economic development.

The only right choice is for the whole world to join hands and work together with one heart and one mind to eliminate the virus and put an end to the calamity at an early date. Both China and the U.S. have a special obligation to shoulder this daunting task. And they need to learn from each other.

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