Culture, Racism, and ‘The Virus’ – How to Culturally Adapt as a Leader

Covid-19 drained the colour from India’s spring festivities. Australia’s older vulnerable people feared being trampled shopping for food. Chinese students are wondering if they’ll ever complete their studies around the world and has now been warned to not come to Australia, due to racism. The cruise industries’ bottom line took a dive. The virus did not choose between race, colour or religion.

In February, I returned from an interstate work trip and my Uber driver gave a relieved sigh the moment he laid eyes on me and said: “Thank goodness you are not Asian!”. I looked at him puzzled and said: “Excuse me?” He enthusiastically continued to explain how his friend just cancelled a pickup as he realised it was a Chinese passenger. Let’s just say the rest of the ride was a tad awkward for him, as I enthusiastically leapt into a conversation about racism and how ‘The Virus’ is not a Chinese virus.

Since then the virus became an excuse for many to act racist and xenophobic.

We have a world leader who still commonly refers to the ‘Chinese Virus’ and defends that statement when pressed on the matter. As the fear of the Corona virus grows, so does anti-Chinese sentiment. Countries such as South Korea, Malaysia, the UK, Italy, Australia, USA and Canada have a particular growing anti-Chinese sentiment. This is portrayed through: the number of businesses placing signs in front of their stores saying, “No Chinese”, people being evicted from rentals, a 16- year old Chinese American boy being attacked or simply people moving seats on a bus as they realise they are sitting near someone from Chinese descent. Many who were at the wrong end of these racist attacks were second or third generation Chinese, or from Asian descent other than Chinese.

As statistics clearly proof, Covid-19 may have Chinese origin, but does not choose between ethnicity, colour, socio economic background or even age.

However, fighting this Virus is not culturally equal! Symptoms may be universal, but how we react to them, is not.

To simplify this, I’ll pick five countries, across five continents. There are different cultural dimensions that influence behaviour. Each of these flex across different extremes with none being better than the other, but simply different. Each extreme always has pros and cons, depending on the situation. There are ten cultural dimensions in total, but again for the sake of this explanation we’ll look at four.

Individualism vs Collectivism

  • Emphasis on individual goals and individual rights vs group goals and personal relationships.
  • Think of how they view personal space and their rights to express themselves.

Low Power Distance vs High Power Distance

  • Emphasis on equality; shared decision-making vs differences in status; superiors make decisions.
  • Think about taking control and being in charge and how important that may be.

Low Uncertainty Avoidance vs High Uncertainty Avoidance

  • Emphasis on flexibility and adaptability vs. planning and predictability.
  • Think of being flexible vs those who plan more and prefer certainty.

Time Orientation – Short Term vs Long Term

  • Emphasis on immediate outcomes (success now) vs long term planning (success later).
  • Think about developing strategic plans and their approach to this. Sony (Japanese) is known for developing 100-year strategic plans.
Use this link to find your country if it is not on the list.

Australia has an advantage as an island and the fact that they were much later to get the virus with potential lessons learnt from other countries. Yet, were slow to respond initially with many conflicting messages (at least in the first few weeks).

Note how they score lowest on power distance (38) (with the USA not too far behind). This means a single person carries more weight and everyone
has a right to an opinion. For example, the PM announced on the week of Monday 23 March, schools will remain open. Only hours later the Queensland Premier told her state that they recommend closing schools. By now there was already about a 30% drop in attendance in schools by individual parents who made the call to take their children out of school. (High Individualism 90)

Days after lockdown, thousands of Australians were still photographed breaking the rules as for example flocking to beaches -even after barricades were put up – expressing their individual right to be there, with a “she’ll be alright” attitude.

China’s response was quite fast and drastic with complete cities and regions going into lockdown.

Though there was also the incident of the original whistle-blower (a medical doctor who alerted the world, but also sadly lost his life). Who was told by police to ‘stop the false comments’ and later investigated for breaking the news.

China reacted fast as it was so much easier in a centralised government with much higher power distance (80) and lower individualism (20). The same reasons they leaned towards what some may call a dictatorial management system – especially when it came to silencing the Doctor who spoke up. The latter is also supported by the relatively low score in uncertainty avoidance. China also built hospitals within days due to this same combination of cultural values combined with much higher longterm orientation (88) than any other country above.

Italy is a country with a new government on average every 10.2 months, lots of different administration changes and some may say constant change and even chaos.

This can be explained by a combination of higher individualism (77) and higher hierarchy (50), where politicians (individualists to whom power is important) each form their own silo of decision making. Think ‘mafiosa’.

Italy also score highest on uncertainty avoidance (75). Which means you cannot jump (make decisions) unless you have a clear researched, double checked plan in place (which is harder to achieve in an already confused bureaucracy).

We also see several good news stories emerging from Italy of people getting together on balconies, singing, playing games etc. Not that surprising for a country higher on uncertainty avoidance (75) who wants to bring a nation together and go back to how it was.

South Africa on the other hand is a bit more complicated if you simply use the index chart above as it is not averaged out over the whole population consisting of 11 official language groups, each with their own cultural cluster.

South Africa is also a in an unique position to all the other above listed countries. They were last to get the virus and have a much larger part of their population living in extreme poverty.

Yet, South Africa responded much quicker to a shutdown than Australia, Italy or the USA. Maybe part of this has to do with the realisation that it is one of the most unequal societies in the world in combination of looking at the rest of the world.

Part of the complexity of South Africa is the high proportion of people living in close proximity (some with no or limited access to water). A large proportion also has TB and a significant proportion of people live with chronic conditions and therefor is at a higher risk.

We see in capitalist countries how they run low on stock as everyone
rush out to buy stuff to make themselves feel better – a big cultural difference to nations less focussed on money. Different organisations responded very different too, depending on their culture.

With a large proportion of South Africans being part of a religious affiliation combined with high individualism (64) many still ignored the warning to isolate and is still gathering at religious ceremonies. One of the major threats South Africans face would be false information as we’ve seen in the past with cures for Ebola and AIDS. Ironically these listed past diseases may be the reason they are already more prepared as it has been practice prior to the Virus, to take temperatures at airports for example. It is not surprising to see Africa get hit so much later as they are still less connected to the rest of the world. Even though South African rate high on individualism (64) on this Index we know that the majority of the country rate higher on collectivism depending on their cultural background. (Hofstede’s results are based on mostly English speaking white south Africans.

There is no doubt we have a world pandemic on our hands.

Our biggest tools to fight this will be respect and compassion! It is crucial to note you are viewing the world through your own lense, your own cultural background, norms and cultural values. During stressful times, people revert back to their comfortable cultural space and adapt less. In other words, we see their values highlighted as they often learnt to adapt to the world. You can be a leader during this time by realising this and stepping back to listen to others, note their different views and practice respect and compassion.

Be a hero in the pandemic, because as all things this will also pass.

*As a loud warning it is important to note that we can use Cultural Values as a best guess, but there are always exceptions and a much wider framework of cultural Intelligence (CQ) to consider when making assumptions around cultures.