Early in the pandemic, I read an article in Forbes that predicted that the U.S. would flatten the curve and turn back the spread of the novel coronavirus because of American exceptionality. The author touted our country’s ability to pull together, our scientific prowess, and overall greatness as the keys to successfully managing the pandemic.
The Forbes article was wrong. Asian countries have done a much better job managing COVID 19. The U.S. has incurred 267,000 deaths out of our total population of 328 million. As a comparison South Korea has had 526 deaths (pop. 51 million) and China has experienced 4,634 deaths (pop. 1.4 billion). Here’s a chart comparing the number of COVID cases among the U.S. and selected Asian countries:
Why is it that Asian countries have done such a better job of managing the pandemic? One reason is that Asian societies have “collectivist cultures” while the U.S. and other western societies have “individualistic cultures.” Here’s the difference between the two types of cultures according to researchers at University of California Berkeley:
- Individualistic Cultures: “Individualism emphasizes personal freedom and achievement. Individualist culture therefore awards social status to personal accomplishments such as important discoveries, innovations, great artistic or humanitarian achievements and all actions that make an individual stand out.” Members of individualistic cultures tend to view the world first through the lens of their own experience.
- Collectivist Cultures: “Collectivism, in contrast emphasizes embeddedness of individuals in a larger group. It encourages conformity and discourages individuals from dissenting and standing out.” Collectivist cultures emphasize the importance of families and working in groups. Members of collectivist cultures tend to see the world first through the lens of their society.
When it comes to controlling the pandemic, collectivist cultures have a leg up. Collectivist cultures have adopted wide-spread mask wearing, which chiefly benefits others, and is effective in limiting the spread of COVID. In the U.S., mask-wearing is sporadic as large swaths of the population see it as an imposition on personal liberty. Society-first thinking also lends itself to participating in contact tracing, limiting social gatherings, and practicing social distancing — all things that are impositions on personal freedom but help manage the spread of disease.
Why are Asian countries more collectivist? A fascinating theory is that because Asian societies have experienced more pandemics over their history than Western societies, Asian culture has evolved to be more collectivist:
Researchers still argue about the ultimate origins of individualism and collectivism, but one fascinating (and contentious) recent theory suggests that these tendencies might reflect the concentration of disease-causing microbes. Collectivistic societies are likely to thrive in pathogen-rich areas of the world, because collectivists tend to fear outsiders more than individualists, and they’re less likely to take the sorts of risks that might encourage disease.– Adan Alter, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave
In other words, Asian cultures long ago learned the lesson that thinking in terms of society at large is required to stop the spread of an epidemic because they’ve experienced more infectious disease. Western cultures, like the U.S., are at a disadvantage due to our lack of experience with epidemics. Our valuing of personal freedom and individual-centric worldviews run contrary to taking actions primarily for the benefit of society as a whole, such as wearing a mask and limiting gatherings. Our cultures are more individualistic partially due to having experienced lesser amounts of infectious disease in the past. When it comes to managing a pandemic, Asian cultures are like a wise adult with vast experience to draw on while the U.S. is like teenager making mistakes due to lack of experience.
A variation of this point of view is the rural vs urban political leaning. Having grown up in a rural community, I know how independent and self-reliant those folks are. Now having lived in the St. Louis area for several decades, I see we are much less independent and self reliant. This isn’t a criticism, but merely recognition of the greater resources in urban areas to address individuals challenges.
As an Asian American, it is interesting reading these comments. My father always taught us(I’m one of 3 children who grew up in a middle class neighborhood), that what is good for the group is more important than individual accomplishments. Yet growing up as an American individual freedom is so much emphasized. I grew up in a mixed culture of white, hispanic and Asian backgrounds (not a lot of African-Americans).
It is interesting that I only really understood the reality of underprivileged black people after I had a small business in Oakland, California. There after mingling with a number of black people (some pretty angry at life) did I understand their plight.
While I believe in my father’s lessons, I also understand the “American” way of individualism. Unfortunately, when there is a major crisis such as Covid, the “group” may need to take precedence. In Asian countries, people wear masks to protect against even the flu, while here some look at mask wearing as crazy.
On this one issue I believe Asian countries have a great advantage.
It reminds one of Churchill’s comment (I paraphrase): ‘America will always do the right thing…after it has tried all the wrong things!’
This article focuses on collectivism versus individualism as the main difference in COVID susceptibility. The numbers are so lopsided that I wonder whether there may be other reasons in addition (not instead): Former exposure to another Asian coronavirus giving immunity? A different, less-infectious strain of COVID in Asia? These are controllable variables that could be the subject of future studies.
Whenever I hear “greatest county on earth,” I think of this Jeff Daniels speech that he gave in “Newsroom.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fTkA3dvpPM
If you have not seen it, worth watching.
Thank you . That is spot on .
The USA is not what it used to be.
No, I do not want to live is an authoritarian culture like China , but the Fake News. misinformation, we are not in this together state of the USA is clearly not working for a whole lot of its people on so many basis human levels like health care and education.
The Jeff Daniels monologue in Newsroom nails it.
Very well written and insightful.
Is there a “ middle way” that might help the West to deal with deadly threats to a society?
The US had faced challenges that threatened its well being before with the Depression and World Wars and we faced them when most of us “were all in this together “
Certainly there were individuals in both circumstances that felt that the Depression was an “ individual “ problem as there were American and Western supporters of Germany in WW2.
Sometimes the individual needs to bend for the collective good of society . It’s not black and white.
Insightful and apolitical. Good stuff.
Good read. The Individualism of our Western civilization is fine if cowboys were still taming the frontier, but our country has become connected to the world in the 21 st century. The phrase, “ we are all in this together” is appropriate and even the cowboys should grow up and follow the science for the greater good.
The making of the greatest country on earth, and it’s continued greatness, is not a function of collectivism. Let the culture war grow, else we end up as colorless and unacceptably preyed upon by their governments as Asian cultures. We are not all in this together, until you rewrite the Constitution. Until then, we are a collection of persistently responsible independents.
Thank you for the comment. Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that the US should become collectivist but rather our individualism makes combatting the pandemic more challenging.