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Understanding the pandemic through a cultural lens

One of the cultural issues in the COVID-19 pandemic is the conflicting ideas about the impact of social distancing.

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic is as much a cultural issue as a healthcare one. For example, the decision to wear or not wear a mask is essentially a cultural matter, with other important choices also shaped by the cultural norms present in particular countries.


In Asia, generally speaking, masks were swiftly adopted, whereas citizens in some Western countries were deeply resistant to the practice, citing medical but also cultural reasons for their refusal to wear protective face coverings. Such rejection of masks, according to Professor Mette Hjort, Dean of Arts and Chair Professor of Humanities, reflects to some extent the focus on individualism and personal freedom in these cultures.


"What I see in many places in the West is an incredibly superficial understanding of what it means to be free," says Professor Hjort. This attitude has manifested itself in a number of different ways, and in the US, some people thought it was their right to organise "COVID-19 parties" in order to test whether coronavirus is a hoax. Some university students also insisted that they had the freedom to go on spring break vacations. While in some Nordic countries, graduation parties emphasizing close proximity and alcohol consumption still took place on the back of lorries amid the pandemic.


"The original threat came from the fact that COVID-19 is a virus. What allowed it to become a global emergency and pandemic was not the virus itself but the facilitation of culture," says Professor Hjort.


Weathering the COVID-19 storm 


Professor John Erni, Fung Hon Chu Endowed Professor in Humanics, further elaborates on the role that culture plays in the pandemic. "The value of mask-wearing, conflicting ideas about the impact of social distancing, and the legacy of different governance and leadership styles in the fight against the virus are all obvious examples related to cultural issues," he says.


In particular, Professor Erni uses a "boat" as a metaphor to illustrate the distinct "quarantine cultures" developed by different cities and countries to cope with the pandemic. Although COVID-19 has had a significant impact on many countries around the world, the "boats" used by different cities and countries to weather the storm are different. How sturdy the boat is, and how people sit on it can make a huge difference. New Zealand is one of the few good examples of where the government and the general public have worked together successfully.


In terms of their response to the virus, New Zealand has repeatedly urged citizens to "unite against COVID-19" – a message that clearly conveys the point that people are all in the same "boat". Instead of declaring war on the virus, Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, referred to the country as "our team of five million". After all, every single citizen is part of the same team. New Zealand has also drawn international praise for carrying out some of the earliest and toughest self-isolation measures in the world, and for achieving high rates of public compliance with the lockdown rules.


"What New Zealand did extremely well was building the narrative of empathy. The government emphasised not just GDP but also well-being," says Professor Hjort. "The places that weathered the storm best are places that were willing to think in terms of 'WE' culture - 'WE are in this together'."


She added that these problems definitely cannot be addressed by a vaccine or science alone. Indeed, some traditions and values need to be deeply re-thought.


Finding cultural solutions to COVID-19


With the firm belief that there is a real role for culture in our fight against the virus, HKBU is holding a two-day online international symposium with the theme "COVID-19 and Beyond, Culturally Speaking" on 15 and 16 September 2020, with Professor Hjort and Professor Erni acting as the convenors. By approaching COVID-19 from a cultural perspective, the symposium aims to provide a unique platform for around 30 world-renowned experts from various disciplines and countries, and it hopes to find solutions to the crises brought about by the pandemic in tandem with the participants.


For more details about the symposium, please click here (