March 22, 2020    AmericaEast vs. West

Cultural Differences in Fighting COVID-19

I’m increasingly skeptical of adopting a strategy modeled after those used by Asian countries (particularly South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan) to fight COVID-19. We must be realistic about the cultural differences. So far, the “Suppression” strategy as defined in the paper by Imperial College London hasn’t worked in Italy. It’s been two weeks since the national lockdown, and the number of new cases is still going up. One could argue that it’s because Italy is not being strict enough, but, just as the level of pain each person can tolerate is different, it is different for culture too. Each culture has strengths and weaknesses; we have to maximize the former and minimize the latter. Asian culture, in general, is more conformist, which is a key ingredient for the suppression strategy. Asking Italians to become as conformist as the Chinese is like asking the Chinese to suddenly acquire the luxury aesthetic of Italians. People cannot change that easily at such a fundamental level overnight.

This article by Tomas Pueyo explains how the suppression strategy works and supplements it with its own strategy called “Hammer and Dance.” After the initial ”Hammer” period, there is a long tail of the “Dance” period where we have to diligently perform contact tracing for every new case. However, contact tracing too is easier in Asia. I can only speak for Japan with any degree of authority, but in a homogenous society, tracing any human interactions is much easier. This is partly the reason Japan has a low crime rate; it’s very difficult to commit a crime there and get away with it because tracking down the criminals is much easier as everyone behaves similarly and values the same things. It’s like tracing the viral spread within a tight Hasidic community in New York City; if you are familiar with the culture and as long as it is contained within the community, it’s relatively easy, but once the infected person makes contact with someone outside of it, it’s like going into a different country. The behavioral patterns would be different. The same assumptions about how people must have behaved no longer hold. (Where would they go? What time? Who would they see? What kind of activities would they engage in? etc..)

Japan appears to be sustaining the proactive, contact tracing strategy since the start of this crisis, but I don’t know how feasible this is in culturally diverse countries like the US. After tracing the contacts of the Westchester lawyer, New York City gave up very quickly.

It appears that the general consensus in the West as of today is that the suppression strategy is the best, and only, strategy (sentiment primarily based on the successes in Asia), and anyone considering the mitigation strategy is being fiercely attacked. I don’t think it’s wise to rule out any strategy. I think we should encourage everyone to think for themselves and contribute their unique perspectives, and adapt to the rapidly changing situations. Once we begin defending and attacking, we end up prioritizing one’s reputation over doing what makes sense. After all, the diversity of thought is the greatest strength of the West, particularly of America.