By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
Colombo, September 9: In a paper published in www.thelancet.com Professor of Psychology Michelle Gelfand and her colleagues have reported that tightly-held and disciplined societies have been better able to tackle the unprecedented challenge posed by COVID-19 than loosely held, liberal and lax societies. The difference shows in the death rate till October 2020.
However, as a study of China shows, tight control could trigger other issues which cry for attention. Then, there are relatively well organized and reasonably disciplined societies like Sri Lanka, which, while controlling the pandemic, have had to face socio-economic constraints and spinoffs.
In their paper: The relationship between cultural tightness-looseness and COVID-19 cases and deaths: a global analysis, Prof.Michelle Gelfand and colleagues say that collective threats require a tremendous amount of coordination, and that strict adherence to social norms is a key mechanism that enables groups to do so. Their paper examines how the strength of social norms—or cultural tightness–looseness—was associated with countries’ success in limiting COVID cases and deaths (by October, 2020).
The study found that tight cultures, which have strict norms and punishments for deviance, had fewer cases and deaths per million as compared with loose cultures, which have weaker norms and are more permissive. “Nations with high levels of cultural looseness were estimated to have had 4·99 times the number of cases (7132 per million vs 1428 per million, respectively) and 8·71 times the number of deaths (183 per million vs 21 per million, respectively), taking into account a number of controls,” the study says.
Till October 2020, Singapore and Taiwan effectively contained the virus, with 9865 cases (five deaths) per million in Singapore and 22 cases (0·3 deaths) per million in Taiwan, whereas Brazil and the USA each had more than 24 000 cases and approximately 700 deaths per million by October, 2020.
Giving the reason for the difference, Gelfand referred to cultural variations in the strength of social norms. “Psychology has long recognized the power of social norms—implicit or explicit rules that constrain behavior—for coordinating action. In tighter cultures such as China, Singapore, and South Korea have stricter rules and punishments for deviance, whereas looser cultures such as Brazil, Spain, and the USA have weaker norms and are much more permissive,” she explains.
Role of Testing
Gelfand’s study found that countries that had widespread testing had lower under-reporting (eg, South Korea), than countries that were slow to adopt widespread testing (eg, the USA).
“A country which was mostly testing people who are symptomatic (as in the USA) had a high rate of under-reporting. In contrast, there was less under-reporting in countries that had a high ratio of tests to cases, because many people receiving tests were asymptomatic (as in South Korea).”
Cultures Can Be Changed
Prof.Gelfand’s research suggests that active interventions are needed to strengthen social norms surrounding behaviors such as physical distancing and wearing face masks, particularly in loose cultures.
“Although social norms do not change instantaneously, decades of research in behavioral economics, political science, and psychology shows that social norms can be changed. Interventions have been highly successful in changing social norms concerning drinking and driving, energy conservation, tax compliance, intergroup prejudice, and bullying and harassment. Likewise, research has illustrated that entire countries can tighten norms that have become too loose. In what has become known as the Youth in Iceland study, parents and local governments joined together to successfully tighten social norms to reduce alcohol and drug abuse, which has been regarded as a model programe in Europe.”
But it might not be easy to change behavior patterns. “Since people in loose cultures have generally enjoyed much more latitude, they might be more likely to resist increased constraint,” Gelfand observes.
Need To Consider Other Factors
Perhaps taking into account former President Donald Trump’s cavalier attitude to COVID-19, Gelfand and her colleagues say that future research should explore other factors, such as political leaders’ personal beliefs about the seriousness of COVID-19, the nature and extent of political polarization, and the quality of governments’ communications about the virus, which might also be associated with responses to COVID-19.
Downside of Control
In their paper in journals.plos.org on political and personal reactions to COVID-19 during initial weeks of social distancing in the United States, Sarah R. Christensen and her colleagues say that in China, the population experienced an increase in panic disorder, depression, and anxiety, after strict quarantine measures were enforced.
“Over one-half of China’s general population reported moderate-to-severe psychological impacts and one-third reported increased levels of anxiety. Groups in China’s general population that were associated with worse mental health outcomes included females, students, those with underlying health conditions, and those with specific symptoms.”
“Among health care workers in China, there was an increase in depression, anxiety, insomnia, and distress. Women, nurses, those in Wuhan, and front-line health care workers were all groups that were associated with worse mental health outcomes,” Christensen reports.
Sri Lankan Case
In Sri Lanka, strict controls have had positive as well as negative effects. A UN Study done in 2020, reveals that the Lankan government’s early efforts to control the epidemics through lockdowns paid off. It delivered food to areas under curfew and gave LKR 5000 per family. LKR 50 billion (USD 270 million or 0.33% of GDP) was committed to monthly transfers in April and May 2020.
The Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) supported affected business firms in the form of 150 basis points in monetary easing since the start of 2020, with suspensions of loan payments and a concessional refinancing program of LKR 50 billion (0.33% of GDP) for activities affected by the pandemic. The Government had also committed 0.1% of GDP for quarantine and containment measures; USD 5 million to the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund.
But economic distress is a fact, the UN reports notes. “ Nearly a million Sri Lankans live within 20% of the national poverty line (i.e. 8.7% of the population). Moreover, living standards remain low, which means that a majority will likely find it challenging to withstand economic shocks on the scale of COVID-19. Income inequality remains stubbornly high. The income share of the richest 20% of households remaining little changed at 50.8% (compared to 52.9% in 2012).”
Health and nutrition services are being redirected to meet emergency needs, and curfews and social distancing measures are disrupting people’s access to their delivery. This is impacting vulnerable groups that depend on them, the UN noted.
“School closures are depriving education and social development opportunities for 4.2 million students, and highlighting gaps between those able and unable to access remote learning opportunities. Women are facing higher risks of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), with the national hotline on domestic violence recording 463 cases in March-April 2020 compared to 123 cases in February-March 2020.”
“The World Bank estimates a 19% drop in migrant remittances for 2020 depriving one in every eleven Sri Lankan households of a direct contribution to household income. In this situation, both low and middle income earners are likely to experience economic shocks, with knock-on impacts on household food security and indebtedness,” the UN report says.