Why have some countries dealt with the COVID-19 so much better than others? How is it that others have fared so very, very badly? It’s not always as simple as good government vs. bad, or effective messaging vs. chaotic messaging. More often, it comes down to the people themselves. Do they tend to be rule-followers? Is there societal pressure to take public health seriously, and how do citizens of those countries respond to that pressure?
These are the type of questions that are of particular interest to Dr. Andrew Ryder. An Associate Professor and, currently, Associate Chair in the psychology department at Concordia University, Dr. Ryder self-identifies as a ‘cultural-clinical’ psychologist. His research is largely about how cultural context shapes mental illness like depression and anxiety. With COVID now, there are some new avenues to explore.
“I’ve turned my attention to whether culture may be involved in shaping physical illnesses, which we’re accustomed to seeing as strictly biological. Rather than retooling myself as a COVID-19 researcher, what I’ve been doing is applying the cultural-clinical framework to research that is being done by many of my colleagues.”
Of course, no country is a cultural monolith. Within every larger society are smaller cultural groups, each with their own ethno-cultural backgrounds, residing in different parts of the country and having different socio-economic statuses. And the difference between those groups in terms of combatting the pandemic can be stark, even within the borders of the same country. And on an even smaller scale, each individual within each community differs on their belief, approach, and conformity to the larger group ethos.
But let’s begin on the “macro” level – how might culture be involved in shaping physical illness?
“It’s an infectious disease, and an infectious disease that is socially transmitted. You have to get it from someone. Many of the things we are being told to stop the spread are behavioural. For example, wearing a mask. You might say ‘well that’s the same behaviour everywhere’, but it isn’t really. In Japan, Korea, Taiwan, it’s doing that thing you always do even when you just have the sniffles. For another cultural group it might be doing something absolutely novel.”
Then on the “meso” level – how might smaller cultural groups within those larger societies approach this?
“We know of some cultural groups where [mask-wearing] immediately seems like an imposition on liberty. Like there’s some kind of core cultural value that is violated by the government telling you to do something unusual. Your psychological state is different when you’re doing something that feels normal versus abnormal under the circumstances.”
What ends up happening, says Dr. Ryder, is that while we all feel like we’re doing the same things – mask wearing, social distancing – those things actually play out very differently for different people. He has spoken to some clients who were into the second week of lockdown before they even knew there was a lockdown. Computer programmers who lived in their basement and had their lives changed very little. Then there are others whose entire way of life was upended overnight.
So what, given the significant differences across cultures on a large scale and a small scale, should be done? Dr. Ryder co-authored a fact sheet for the CPA on Culture and COVID-19 with his colleagues Dr. Maya Yampolsky, Dr. John Berry, and Dr. Saba Safdar, that sought to answer that question. (‘Why Does Culture Matter to COVID-19’)
“An unprecedented number of people worldwide are concerned about the same disease and are experiencing broadly the same distancing measures. As such, there may be a temptation to focus on the similarities. At a minimum, policymakers, healthcare workers, and the public at large should keep in mind that the pandemic experience may be very different for different people. These differences are shaped by the society in which one lives, the communities of which one is a part, and culturally-shaped individual variations. Complicating matters, appreciation for difference does not mean treating all responses equally when it comes to effectively mitigating a pandemic. Clearly, some cultural patterns are more effective than others.”
Cultural differences seem to be enormous factors both in containing the spread of COVID-19 and in accelerating it. Some countries are doing exceptionally well, others not so much. And no one factor can determine why but Dr. Ryder points to a few factors. One is the “tightness” of a society, meaning the level of uniformity and narrowness in that society’s understanding and expectation is when it comes to rules, norms and customs. This seems to correlate directly with the degree to which that society accepts and implements public health guidelines. Another is “relational mobility”, which is a measure of how much people move around, and especially how much they move around between various social groups. This tends to correlate with the speed of the spread in those societies.
Never before has there been an event like the COVID-19 pandemic that can highlight the cultural differences in communities, cities, regions, and countries around the world, in terms of how they respond. For self-identified cultural-clinical psychologists like Dr. Ryder, that presents a whole new fascinating series of studies upon which to build his understanding and his work.
His attention is now turning toward cultural variations in how we will recover. Who will bounce back first, and who will bounce back better? How will the logistics of vaccines be handled, and how will those logistics intersect with public concerns about those vaccines? More than anything else, Dr. Ryder’s interest is in the long term. How effectively will different people in different societies respond to the crisis, learn from it, and be better prepared down the line for any future similar outbreaks?
Some of those questions are being answered right now, others will take some time before a larger picture emerges. In the meantime, each of us is fighting a devastating global disaster in our own way. It’s the difference in the ways each of us fight it that could be most illustrative in mitigating potential future damage the next time something like COVID-19 occurs.