COVID-19 – THE GREAT LEVELLER

Jeevika Kapadia, Research Director, Ipsos UU, India & Ashwini Sirsikar, Country Service Line Leader, Ipsos UU (qualitative research division), India

The cliché of ‘turning the world upside down’ is often carelessly tossed around, but it is hard to argue with its aptness when speaking of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An equal opportunity destructive force, it has made no distinction between any of these – whether national boundaries  or ethnic origins, likewise, for economic status and religious beliefs, or other myriad criteria, that people conventionally use, to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’. As stories multiply, of the high and mighty, getting used to swabbing floors at home in the absence of domestic help, it is no longer merely a metaphorical allusion to say that it has brought people down to their knees. As people and cultures across the globe struggle to make sense of this new reality they are suddenly being confronted with, we try to explore a few societal trends that seem to be emerging in response, using some of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions (reference Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory).

Democracy vs. Authoritarianism:  

At first glance, the perceived swift, efficient and what seems to be a very successful suppression of the initial Covid-19 outbreak in China, seems to stand in sharp contrast to the comparatively floundering response of the Western democracies across Europe and the US. While there has been justifiable criticism of China's methods as draconian and domineering, it is hard to question the results that seem to have been delivered. The whole world is noticing that more authoritarian societies have been able to enforce exactly the sort of fast, efficient and all-encompassing lockdowns which are now universally accepted as the real need of the hour. In contrast, more liberal societies, with their laissez faire attitude, seem to be constantly two steps behind the virus, because of their systemic inability to enforce hard decisions, until the water level reaches the nose. Consequently, what may end up distinguishing the Covid-19 pandemic from all previous global-scale emergencies like World Wars, previous pandemics etc, is that it might be the first one in history to actually create a case, for more authoritarian forms of governance - or at least, their relative virtues, in the context of combating such global scale emergencies.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

Interestingly, the variations in how different countries have responded to the pandemic and the relative success/ lack of it, go beyond simple political or governance structure differences. From a more bottom-up viewpoint, these responses and their results, also seem to reflect the degree of individualism embedded within the everyday cultural fabric of societies across the world. While the Chinese model with its implied state coercion, certainly seems to have worked, so too have the efforts of many open democratic societies in East Asia like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan as well as many in Scandinavia like Sweden, Norway and Finland.  Since there are no China-like coercive governance structures in these countries, that suggests, the common link may go beyond simplistic state power and is more likely the spirit of collectivism and voluntary respect for authority, that characterizes these cultures. As television screens across the world play out powerful contrasting images of the sombre face mask clad streets of East Asia versus the carefree frolicking at beach parties in Sydney and Florida, many will take the lesson that the much vaunted individualism and resentment of authority that characterizes Anglo-Saxon cultures like the UK, US and Australia, may actually be a huge disadvantage when faced with a challenge which asks of the individual to  ‘not only keep oneself safe, but also to keep others around, safe’.

Indulgence vs Restraint

In the beginning, life in these days of lockdowns was a novel and even somewhat a welcome experience. It was seen to be a break from routine and the monotony of everyday work life. Many looked at it as a paid holiday and a time to relax. There were a few places where liquor ordering lists were being circulated, with the same alacrity as medicine lists. Jokes were being cracked about the definition of essentials and non-essentials. It was a time to binge watch, try out new and different cuisines and lay back to take a break. However, with the passing of the days and as the magnitude of the crisis has set in, there is now more anxiety and personal financial insecurity over what a post-Covid world may look like, as well as a greater sensitivity and empathy for the plight of the underprivileged, who are even less equipped to deal with these same challenges. Consequently, there is a certain restraint and cautiousness, which is being exhibited when it comes to spending – especially when it comes to any spends that would be classified as discretionary or an indulgence.  On a more positive note, there is also an emerging sense of community solidarity, that can be seen from ordinary people doing their bit for society-from donating to PM relief fund, to helping their maids and other staff with food, money and other essentials. It would be interesting to see how these behavioural changes evolve over the next few weeks and whether this attitude of personal restraint and being mindful, remains with us even after the crisis is over.

Power distance:

Power distance measures how a culture measures the relationship between people. India has traditionally been a high power distance society with high degree of inequality in the society based on affluence, caste, gender and position of authority. COVID-19 has cocked a snook at all these differences and upturned the power imbalances to an extent. The virus has not differentiated between the rich and the poor, and in fact, has taken within its grip some of the most powerful public figures like Prince Charles, Tom Hanks, Boris Johnson, who have unfortunately caught the virus.

Ergo, it has brought everyone to an equal footing with even the rich and the affluent sweeping, mopping and doing dishes (the video of Katrina Kaif doing dishes has gone viral as we speak). Thinking of it, now even a humble grocer has more power over the buyer, even if one has the monetary resources to purchase, one either needs to request or plead rather than being demanding.  Where the powerful e-tailers have failed, it is the humble grocer who’s been able to manage supplies and deliveries better.

Another interesting angle is the power distance between nations, those lines are also blurring as the most powerful nation in the world. USA is the worst impacted & is grappling with similar issues as any underdeveloped or a developing nation.

This virus has the power to change the ‘power play’, be it within the community or across nations worldwide.

Religion vs Science

The tussle between faith and science has been there through the ages. History is replete with examples and arguments from both sides. But, from the viewpoint of how the world is responding to Covid-19, there is only one clear winner emerging. Almost without exception, all countries across religious boundaries have based their response on what the doctors and scientists are advising them - resulting in near-universal acceptance of social distancing restrictions now being imposed across the globe.  That religious gatherings are now coded as potential epicentres for the infection to transmit and therefore banned across the world, is a telling sign of who has the upper hand. Consequently, another unique aspect differentiating this Covid-19 crisis from previous global disasters, is the case it is making for turning to science and not religion, when it comes to staying safe in the modern world.

Needless to say, it is still early days yet, in terms of how the Covid-19 pandemic and the global response to it, is going to play out. One thing is certain – the world that emerges on the other side of this crisis, is going to be very different from the one that entered it. While we have listed few of the early societal patterns that we have observed, it would be interesting to see how these pan out, as the trajectory of the virus progresses and to see the long term impact of some of these changes.

 

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