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Sameness as a Pandemic Perk

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May 4, 2020

Written by Jenna McHugh

The line of success and failure is becoming blurred as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses into May 2020 as unique approaches have been exercised by different countries. Widely reported are the accomplishments of South Korea as the country was able to contain COVID-19 by implementing mass testing measures quickly, utilizing masks and closing schools without implementing a lockdown of the country. Sweden embarked on a distinctive strategy opting to keep business open, while practicing lax social distancing measures and protecting their vulnerable populations, like seniors. As the Swedish situation is unfolding the development of the ‘herd-immunity’ is currently leading to increased death rates comparatively in Europe, but theoretically it may prove beneficial as other countries may see an increase of cases during a second wave as they begin to open-up again. Alternatively, the Danish were one of the first countries in Europe to have instigated a country-wide lockdown, closing schools and keeping public employees at home. New Zealand implemented one of the world’s most strict lock-down measures and are on track to ‘eliminate’ COVID-19; a success story that is unlikely to be replicated anywhere else in the world due to its low population density and geographic distance from other countries. Unfortunately, the United States was seemingly slow out of the gate and by mid-March the number of cases in the US had significantly increased and regulations moved quickly from closing schools and businesses to ‘sheltering in place’ orders. As of April, 28 they have amassed over 1 million cases. According to the Stringency Index developed by the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford that provides data about the relative government responsiveness, the US had a response slower than every other country. This information helps paint a picture of the effects of a country’s response strategy. Some of the success of a country’s response can be related to the number of confirmed cases, but what also should be explored is the population uptake of pandemic policy and why. 

Currently, scientists are working to predict the efficacy of adding and removing particular control measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. Nations such as Germany and Austria adopted early and aggressive strategies compared to Italy, France and Spain who implemented strict measures later in their epidemics. Preliminary research also suggests that poorer nations brought in stricter measures than richer countries, relative to the severity of their outbreaks. Lower-income countries with less-developed health-care systems may have been motivated to act more cautiously due to a lack of resources. The diverse decision making and implementation strategies have led to varying degrees of COVID-19 outcomes. The intention of this article is to garner understanding of the strategies that different countries have implemented through exploring an alternate viewpoint – cultural homogeneity. It is hypothesized that increased levels of sameness amongst populations within a country, leading to increased government and social trust would assist governments in establishing control measures to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. This theory may explain why there are areas in the highly multicultural US where social distancing measures have not been exercised. However, it is also important to note there is an optimistic case for increased cultural diversity in a country such as Canada where we see moderate, but increasing levels of government trust in a very high multicultural state. 

Cultural homogeneity is a murky concept to define due to the need to scale communities in order to draw reference for the concept. Within a city a particular neighbourhood could be homogenous, but when you consider the city as a whole the homogeneity is diluted if there are pockets of differing multicultural neighbourhoods. Furthermore, homogeneous characteristics can be grouped in different ways. For example, an individual may belong to a national group such as a political party, but also be an immigrant and practicing a particular set of religious beliefs. Now, if an entire nation were practicing a particular set of religious beliefs that would create a homogenous country or if a city was supportive of a political party the city would then be homogenous. Cultural homogeneity is also relative to cultural heterogeneity, the antonym. A culture that is heterogeneous is largely diverse with many differences in ethnicity, cultural practices and political motivators. Most importantly, the definitions are tied to one’s identity in relation to the identity of the larger group. In practice homogeneity and heterogeneity have pros and cons. There is literature suggesting that low levels of national wealth as cultural homogeneity increases so too does the probability of civil war, meaning that cultural diversity can bring about social stability. However, at the highest levels of national wealth homogeneity lowers the probability of civil war. Moreover, there are benefits of cultural heterogeneity within societies and countries that go beyond the government response to COVID-19. A paper out of Harvard in 2003 examining the cost-benefits of diversity said it best when stating, “The potential benefits of heterogeneity come from variety in production. The costs come from the inability to agree on common public goods and public policies.” This conclusion is important to highlight when considering the response to a global pandemic. 

Throughout the course of the Coronavirus pandemic government leadership has been greatly attributed to the success of the COVID-19 response. Tactical government leadership, amongst other enforcement is an important component in leveraging the population to carry out the will of the state. An article published in Forbes, titled What Do Countries with the Best Coronavirus Responses Have In Common? Women Leaders, outlines the pandemic responses from Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Denmark. The author highlights how the countries have appropriately responded to the pandemic thanks to their womanly leadership. Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel began taking the pandemic seriously early-on, which has led to higher rates of testing and lower infections due to lockdown measures. Taiwan was able to slow the spread without ever instigating lock-down measures and are examples of a ‘whole-society-approach’ epidemic response; this fostered cooperation between state, local governments and communities and is now highly recommended for future outbreaks. New Zealand’s Prime Minister has been praised for her empathetic approach in handling the pandemic; Kiwi’s feel that their leader is standing beside them. Iceland has been able to institute mass testing without lockdowns and has been preparing for a pandemic of this nature for years. Finland, having the world’s youngest (and female) Prime Minister, enacted similar measures to other nordic countries with shut-downs. Lastly, Denmark Prime Minister Mette Frederikson made decisive action early on to restrict large gatherings of over 1,000 on March 6 and by March 18 restrictions of gatherings over 10 were in place. She persevered through complaints from Swedes and their desires to continue to work in the country and remained constant in her effort to prevent the spread. 

Not only does singling these leaders out as women detract from their expertise and the commanding respect they have garnered, but their sex is even less important if leadership is more pronounced when the population is focused on similar ideals. After Forbes published the article on April 1, other news outlets such as The Washington Post and CNN followed suit to discuss the “secret weapon” of the pandemic. It may be true that men and women lead differently; there is nothing wrong with a country having female leadership, which may create different avenues for success. Their COVID-19 responses have been exemplary, but there may be more to the story. Effective leadership can be easier to achieve when the population is culturally homogenous. This theory also becomes apologetic to Trump and the situation highlighted above as the US is culturally heterogeneous. The map below highlights the ethnic homogeneity of different countries around the world. As a caveat, this data and the study from Harvard was completed in 2002, making this image 18 years old with some data points coming from even earlier. However, the countries that are being commended: South Korea, Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Denmark for their response are all scaling on the orange side- ethnically homogenous. 

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Recognizing that the argument being made is around cultural homogeneity this data uses ethnicity to determine homogeneity of the country. Researchers measured ‘fractionalization’, another word for diversity, meaning if you called up two people at random in a particular country and asked them their ethnicity what are the odds that they would give different answers? The higher the odds the more ethnically “fractionalized” or diverse the country. This research mostly fits with the assessment of cultural homogeneity noting that some individuals may have differing ethnicity, but remain homogenous in other ways.  Furthermore, exploration of ethnicity relationship to other factors of homogeneity need to be examined. Ethnicity does not always account for political or religious membership.

Noted in the Harvard study was the strength of democracy in relation to homogeneity, leading the researchers to believe that diversity makes democracy more difficult. “The idea is that in more fragmented societies a group imposes restrictions on political liberty to impose control on the other groups. In more homogeneous societies it is easier to rule more democratically since conflicts are less intense.” These countries praised have increased levels of government trust and national identity. The highest levels of social trust around the world are associated with close associations of religious/cultural, social, economic and political characteristics. Delhey and Newton in their 2005 study (linked above) determined that, “The finding that ethnic homogeneity is strongly associated with generalized trust suggests that it may not be easily extended to others in general, as opposed to others who are like us.” Again, ethnicity is used in this example, but makes the case for homogeneity. It could be argued that ethnicity will cease to matter in the future as heterogeneous societies work together and create more homogeneity. Nevertheless, high levels of trust seems to be a common feature of the countries who are enacting effective coronavirus responses. 

This trust, aided by homogeneity may be integral to the uptake of policy changes because these countries have a broad societal trust that others in their communities will act responsibly. Studies consistently find that Scandinavian countries trust their government and fellow citizens. For example, Danish have an incredibly high trust in their government and a strong national identity. Danish citizens pay extremely high taxes and the country is one of the least corrupt. With that, these countries are seeing increased government trust for their respective pandemic responses. Finland is seeing high levels of trust, with their Prime Minister having an 85% approval rating for the handling of the pandemic. New Zealanders also have a high level of trust in their government, with 88% trusting their government officials to make the right decisions about COVID-19. Alternatively, the US is seeing increasing polarization because of the pandemic. Research has shown “the stronger the relationship in government, the more likely people are to believe their leaders, engage with them and comply with their instructions.”

There are promising exceptions to this hypothesis, such as the multicultural country of Canada. Canadian citizens feel like they belong even when they’ve immigrated from another country. As of 2013, immigrants in Canada are more likely than non-immigrants to report having a strong sense of belonging to Canada (67% versus 62%). This also speaks to the point above about ethnicity mattering less and less as countries continue to open their borders. The graph below illustrates this point:

Furthermore, the Canadian COVID-19 response has increased citizens’ trust in government federally and provincially. Ontarians have positively remarked on the leadership their premier Doug Ford has exuded over the past month and 55% of respondents in a national survey indicated improvement in their relationship with province (only 18% reporting a decline). Canada has been ranked globally as #13 in Safety Rankings by the Deep Knowledge Group including the number of cases and deaths, geography and demographics, hospital capacity, medical expertise, and emergency planning. Comparatively, the USA is in 70th place. Considering the higher levels of multiculturalism in Canada presented by the Harvard research, the success of the country’s response is more likely due to a combination of government trust, leadership and policy. 

Across the world the pandemic responses are still unfolding. Success stories around the world are yet to be completely revealed. Compared to other homogenous nordic countries Sweden is seeing an increased death rate with their open-for-business, but controlled social distancing policy strategies. Without proper policy implementation the benefits of homogeneity may have less potential. In the case of Sweden, the variables that outweigh the associated benefits of sameness will prove themselves if their situation continues to worsen. There is research suggesting that what matters more in creating social trust in a country is fairness. Freedom from corruption, income equality, and mature democracy result in social trust across countries. Many believe this conversation is not worth having with diversity in populations bringing in new resources and differing perspectives creating opportunities outweighing similarities amongst populations. None of these benefits have been disputed. It is simply the case that the effects of homogeneity are playing to many country’s strengths of response to the pandemic. The evidence presented bears to mind the importance of a country’s willingness to come together and support thy neighbour. Sameness may support effective leadership and policy implementation to make it easier for communities to have trust and share responsibility for protecting one another through the onset of a pandemic.

Jenna McHugh is the Founding Editor of Vigor. Follow her at @jennoratorr


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