Confucian, South Asian cultures fare better in combating COVID-19: study

January 11, 2021

Confucian cultures such as China's have handled COVID-19 better than others. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Nations where East and South Asian cultures predominate have been “significantly better” than the rest of the world at preventing the spread of COVID-19, new research suggests, a finding that highlights potential cultural obstacles for Western policymakers scrambling to get the pandemic under control in their countries.

In an article published Dec. 9 in World Medical & Health Policy, researchers found evidence linking Confucian and South Asian national cultures to better COVID-19 outcomes in countries characterized by those cultures. 

While it isn’t easy to discern which factors explain the success of the two cultures relative to other cultural groupings around the world, the researchers said, their presence in countries across Asia did seem to impact the early trajectory of the virus’ spread.

“We are confident that culture mattered in the COVID-19 response,” co-authors Jeremy D. Mayer, Laurie A. Schintler and Scott Bledsoe of George Mason University said.

To probe the connection between a nation’s culture and how effective its response to COVID-19 had been through April 27, 2020, the researchers drew on nation-level data detailing COVID-19 case counts from Oxford University-sponsored nonprofit Our World in Data. 

To code countries by culture, the researchers utilized the Inglehart-Wetzel World Value Survey’s cultural mapping of the world. The survey, first launched in 1981, helped them to classify nations into one of nine cultural categories — including African-Islamic, Baltic, Catholic Europe, Protestant Europe, English-speaking, Orthodox, Confucian, Latin American and South Asian — based broadly on the countries’ orientations toward traditional versus secular-rational values and survival versus self-expression values.

Cultures with traditional values tend to emphasize the importance of religion, family ties and deference to authority, while those with secular-rational values don’t rely as much on religion, traditional family values and attitudes toward authority, the researchers noted. Cultures with survival values prioritize economic and physical security over tolerance and trust, while those with self-expression values emphasize environmental protections, tolerance of foreigners and other minority groups and democratization of economic and political life.

The authors ran two separate regression analyses on the data they compiled, controlling for countries’ wealth levels, population densities and average ages. The second model included a “stringency index,” developed by researchers with Oxford’s Coronavirus Government Response Tracker, which aggregates governments’ varied social-distancing mandates and represents the overall policy stringency of each on a scale of 0 to 100.

The analyses ultimately yielded evidence that Confucian and South Asian “culturally-affiliated nations” were associated with lower levels of viral spread per 100,000 people.

Mayer, Schintler and Bledsoe noted their findings were particularly surprising in the context of the Confucian culture, given that the novel coronavirus was first identified in China — the country that is arguably the culture’s central node.

They said that the Confucian culture’s relatively high priority on cleanliness, “higher rates of obedience” to mandates by authorities, and “greater exposure to coronaviruses over centuries” could all potentially account for its success in handling the disease outbreak.

The researchers were the first to identify a link between the South Asian culture and low infection rates, an effect they acknowledged could dissipate as the pandemic wears on and more testing data comes in. 

Like the Confucian culture, they suggested, the South Asian culture’s emphasis on obedience to authority could play a role in explaining how successful public health measures have been in the region.

And both the Confucian and South Asian cultures are associated with a relatively conservative approach to social interaction, they noted, including using forms of greeting or family practices which often involve less physical contact, and with fewer people, than is common in some other societies.

Mayer said they were also struck by evidence suggesting that while culture accounts for some differences in infection rates, governance itself does not. 

The researchers had also analyzed data on countries’ regime types and levels of political freedom from Freedom House, an organization that publishes annual studies “assessing the condition of political rights and civil liberties around the world.” 

The initiative aggregates civil liberties and political rights scores into a total freedom score, which the team from George Mason included in their regression analysis to investigate potential links between regime type and virus-fighting efficacy.

While some authoritarian nations have touted their governments for handling the pandemic more competently than their freer counterparts, the researchers noted, their analysis revealed “no evidence that … less free nations have an advantage in the battle against COVID-19, once other factors are controlled for.”

“We didn’t see a regime type relationship or even a relationship between [policy] measures taken and COVID-19 spread,” Mayer told The Academic Times, adding that the results could mean that governments’ options for crafting effective policy responses could be constrained by their cultural contexts.

“Governments don’t get to choose the national culture,” he said. “Culture changes at a glacial pace, most of the time.”

Some cultures could be better suited than others to curbing the spread of infectious diseases by promoting the value of obedience in a country’s citizens, according to Mayer. 

“If you have a culture where people just tend to cheat on their taxes and not obey the rules of driving, [for example,] then you’re going to have trouble with pandemic regulation,” he said. “The message for decision makers is that culture matters and regulation cultures matter in a pandemic.”

The article “Culture, Freedom, and the Spread of Covid‐19: Do Some Societies and Political Systems Have National Anti‐Bodies?,” published on  Dec. 9 in World Medical & Health Policy, was co-authored by associate professor Jeremy D. Mayer, associate professor Laurie A. Schintler, and doctoral candidate Scott Bledsoe, all of George Mason University.

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