Big Read: Individualism, Collectivism, and COVID-19
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
By Stephanie Kannimmel, BSc PPE Student at King's College London
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been clear differences in how countries in the East and the West have handled the spread of the virus. The roots of individualism and collectivism are linked to patterns of disease intensity. In areas where the threat of infectious disease is higher such as the tropics, societies develop to be more collectivist to counter such threats.
Conversely, individualistic societies have a history of more diverse social networks and less reliance on stable patterns of social interaction, meaning that contagion became more likely as infectious diseases spread. With the continual spread of COVID-19, it is prevalent to analyse different case studies whether individualism or collectivism contributes to a country’s success in handling the spread, and whether one model trumps the other.
Individualism: Western democracies
Western democracies value individualism, which is tied to personal freedom, standing out, and the celebration of individual success. Individualism creates the benefits of freedom and innovation. However, it has its downfalls when the agents seem to not know what is good for them. Philosopher Jane Mansbridge highlights the need for intervention to address problems people face in governing themselves, arguing that Western democracy focusses too little on legitimate coercion. Individualistic values of freedom make it difficult for governments to make people follow the rules without the rise of protests against the lockdown restrictions, as seen in several Western democracies during the pandemic.
The United States of America
Over 250,000 people are now dead from COVID-19 in the United States, with every state affected and over 19 million cases confirmed.
Source: The Guardian; CSSE at Johns Hopkins University
The rapid spread of the pandemic led to economic disaster for the United States and its industries as a whole, as well as for families and individuals in the resurgence of COVID-19 in autumn and winter. Over 11.1 million Americans were unemployed as of October, and over 100,000 small businesses are now permanently closed. On top of this, food insecurity continues to soar. Hospitalisations continue to surge, placing pressure on resources and healthcare workers.
US President Donald Trump promised in April that five million tests a day would be carried out “very soon”. The President fell far short of his promise, with tests only climbing above 1.6 million in the US on November 13. After lockdowns were first implemented in March, demonstrations against lockdowns and the vaccine ensued in several US states with citizens brandishing guns and anti-Semitic signs, encouraged by President Trump, to push for the reopening of their state.
Economist Paul Krugman attributes the United States’ poor pandemic response to politicians failing to get people to act responsibly, stating that loving freedom is an excuse for “America’s cult of selfishness”. The demonstrations have also been described as an identity crisis rooted in America’s individualistic history. However, while this may be true in public attitudes, as seen in the protests, misinformation from the government has contributed to the crisis of public confidence in the vaccine, eroding the public’s trust in official messaging.
The Trump Administration’s failure to fulfil its goals for testing, as well as misinformation about the vaccine spread by President Trump, highlight the US government’s lack of capability. This suggests that it may not be just America’s individualistic values that have influenced the way it has handled COVID-19, but also the lack of public trust in the current government and the eroding trust in the government that has persisted over time in American history due to the actions of its leaders.
The United Kingdom
A recent surge in COVID-19 cases has also occurred in the UK, with daily cases reaching upwards of 30,000 and over 60,000 total deaths. When lockdown first began in March, hospitals cancelled elective surgery with a severe backlog of 4.4 million people waiting for treatment. As of this week, the UK is under Tier 4 lockdown measures and could remain so until Easter due to a new, far more potent strain of the virus.
Similarly to the US, demonstrations against the vaccine and lockdowns have occurred throughout the UK. Boris Johnson suggested that COVID-19 infections are higher in the UK than in other European countries because British people value freedom more and find it harder to adhere to regulations. This attracted a lot of criticism, but many economists and political scientists agree, citing freedom once again as a value in Western liberal democracies.
However, Italy and Germany, which Johnson said seemed to value freedom less, value freedom as well and are faring better than the UK is. Johnson’s view therefore seems to be stuck in the 1930s when Italy and Germany were under fascist and authoritarian rule. Furthermore, the UK’s response can be heavily attributed to Johnson’s own failure to recognise the severity of the virus at its initial peak, ignoring the World Health Organization’s warning and highlighting the importance of “herd immunity”. Therefore, instead of citizens finding it harder to adhere to regulations due to individualistic values, it may be the government’s lack of urgency in implementing these regulations itself being the culprit for the UK’s failure to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Collectivism: Eastern autocracies
It has been established that there are other factors that come into play in Western democracies besides individualism that have contributed to poor handling of the spread of COVID-19. Can the same be said for collectivism?
Many Asian countries emphasise Confucian values of “disciplined government”, placing value on good governance and accountability, as well as on the importance of valuing duty to society over individual needs. The embeddedness of individuals in a group and the need to support and learn from one’s social environment is of greater importance than individual success. Therefore, citizens in collectivist societies are more conscientious about limiting the spread of the virus, and the government’s response to COVID-19 is not politicised and biased along partisan lines. Strong cultures based on shame and not wanting to “lose face” also make consensus more readily achieved, meaning that it is easier for governments to introduce rapid and effective action to contain the virus.
Economic activity collapsed in China in February and rebounded in March. The Chinese government initially found it challenging to deal with the economic impact due to the mixed-market economy making it difficult for policymakers to set base rates. As a result, China initially suffered under the impact of the virus, allowing it to escape Wuhan and spiral into a global pandemic. However, once it was clear that COVID-19 was a serious crisis, the government eventually mobilised the bureaucracy and launched stimulus packages that supported economic growth, and was able to lift lockdowns as a result.
A key factor in China’s success in rebounding after the initial spread of the virus lies in the mobilisation of the bureaucracy. Bureaucracy committee members live within the residential compounds they manage to enforce mandatory lockdown measures. Technology was used to monitor people entering and exiting. Police and neighbourhood committee members assisted with disinfecting and recording temperatures, organising grocery deliveries, and tracking down those who did not want to quarantine.
In addition to the successful use of technology and effective implementation of policies to monitor the public, China’s bureaucracy to ensure public compliance contributed greatly to its success in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Avoiding quarantine, hiding symptoms, and concealing that one had been to a virus hotspot are considered crimes in China, but even without an official warning, people complied with strict lockdowns. In line with collectivist values, Chinese citizens insist that “China’s epidemic prevention is about social organisation, not technology”. However, it was not only public compliance with government regulations in a single-minded goal of total virus elimination that allowed China to handle the spread of COVID-19 successfully; rapid testing, the use of technology, and the presence of a strong bureaucracy to enforce regulations — all have played a role.
Singapore is one of the greatest success stories in handling COVID-19, with the lowest global fatality count of only 27 deaths among over 57,000 people infected in total. Singapore mitigated the spread of the virus with early detection through contact tracing and testing of 15% of its population of 5.7 million — one of the highest global per capita testing rates. A mask mandate was announced in April, and is widely complied with due to a strong mask culture already existing in Singapore. COVID-19 patients above the age of 45 or with underlying health conditions were cared for in hospital even if they were not otherwise unwell.
The government’s only real slip-up was its poor handling of the virus among migrant workers living in dormitories and employed in labour-intensive sectors, which accounted for 95% of infections. However, the government soon put dormitory residents on rostered testing regimes and began mass testing in vulnerable communities.
Although Singapore’s collectivist culture, especially in terms of public compliance to ensure disease prevention, contributes greatly to its success in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, it is clear that other factors come into play as well. Firstly, Singapore has some of the world’s best healthcare facilities. Good healthcare facilities, as well as the fact that hospitals are not understaffed, account for Singapore’s success in treating COVID-19 patients and the low fatality count. Furthermore, advanced technology allowed for successful testing and contact tracing, putting Singapore in a position to enforce regulations feasibly from the start.
Anomalies and the importance of trust in good governance and stability
It is clear that factors other than individualism or collectivism alone influence how well nations handle the spread of COVID-19. Factors including trust in good governance, government stability, and technology and resources have proven to play a large role as well. In fact, the presence or absence of these factors may prove to have an even bigger impact than individualism and collectivism on how countries have mitigated the spread. This can be seen in the cases of New Zealand, a country following the ideals of Western democracy that successfully handled COVID-19, and Malaysia, a country built around collectivism that continues to struggle.
Not only did New Zealand respond to the spread of the virus in line with general pandemic policies, but also with a COVID-19-tailored approach that focussed on suppression over mitigation. Like China, New Zealand had a goal of total COVID-19 elimination. New Zealand implemented almost immediate border closures, followed by lockdown only 15 days after its first case confirmation. After two weeks, lockdown was associated with a reduction in daily cases and improved measures of detecting incidence through contact tracing, isolation, and testing. New Zealand was declared COVID-19 free in early June after no cases were reported for 17 days. Since then, social distancing is not required, no limits are imposed on public gatherings, and borders remain closed to foreigners.
By being able to keep cases and deaths low even when suffering major economic shocks initially, New Zealand disproved the idea that controlling the virus is too difficult for Western countries to achieve. Real strategy in terms of COVID-19-specific policymaking is not evident in other Western countries that only implement small lockdowns every two to three months. Although public compliance was key to New Zealand’s successful response, decisive and stable governance, as well as effective communication between the government and the public, were equally important. Peter Collignon, infectious disease expert at the Australian National University, highlights that success in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 is not proportionate to lockdown intensity, but is proportionate to contact tracing, a compliant population, and good isolation quarantine and infrastructure. Therefore, regardless of the political system present within a nation, if the aforementioned factors are absent, the spread of the virus cannot be handled effectively.
In March, within one week of the government’s lockdown declaration, 95% of the Malaysian population complied with the order, according to Ibrahim Suffian, program director with a polling group in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia did well handling the virus initially. Despite uncertainty and fragility in Malaysian politics, the government was able to quickly implement a Movement Control Order with stringent lockdown policies, clear updates, and social distancing measures.
However, despite measures that brought daily cases down to single digits in mid-2020, cases surged again after state elections occurred in East Malaysia and clusters emerged throughout states in Peninsular Malaysia. Currently, daily cases stand above 2,000 at their highest this month. Due to economic and political instability skyrocketing, the government is unable to implement another lockdown as strict as the first one. Trust in experts is still high in Malaysia, but government stability is declining. Therefore, regardless of public compliance, political instability made it difficult for the Malaysian government to effectively handle the spread of the virus eventually.
Trust in good governance and state capability in terms of political and economic stability, effective communication, and the availability of resources prove to be more important indicators of a nation’s success in handling the spread of COVID-19 than whether a country values individualism or collectivism.
China and Singapore have populations that trust their government, while trust in the US government has plunged from 75% of the population in the 1960s to a miniscule 17% today. Autocracies like China and Singapore with state apparatus, resources, power, and efficiency have greater capability to enforce shutdowns. Factors such as the availability and use of technology and the public’s trust in such measures also play a major role, as seen through effective contact tracing and quarantine measures in New Zealand.
The values and political morals that exist in a nation, and the way these shape citizens’ views of the government, are certainly important factors in ensuring public compliance with regulations implemented during COVID-19. However, without the trust in the government’s ability, there is nobody to follow guidelines put in place, and therefore no point in implementing them. Therefore, one model is not necessarily better than the other; even more fundamental to a nation’s success in mitigating the spread of the virus is good and stable governance.
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