Clear Up Cultural Misunderstandings in Fighting COVID-19

Press time:2020-05-26Number of views:33

A controversial substantive, the “Chinese virus”, was created and quoted to divert the attention of rising panic caused by novel coronavirus (COVID-19) few days ago by the President of America, which on the other hand has pushed the issue of racial discrimination against especially Chinese to the waves of public discussion. In fact, it was not only America but also several western countries who have been putting forward some discussions about racial discrimination against Chinese since the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus. For instance, several racist coronavirus-related humiliation and violence incidents were probed by local police in the UK. Those things were posted on social media and, since such incidents happened so frequently, some authoritative media, such as BBC and Guardian, have been reporting the rise in racism targeting Asian people especially Chinese after the outbreak of coronavirus in China.

Picture 1  Racially attack reported by BBC

Picture 2  Abuse at Asian reported by the Guardian

Picture 3  Verbal violence posted on social media

In spite of the fact that there are few racists and political radicals behaving in the aforementioned way on the pretext of the novel coronavirus, a lot of western people are too scared to calm themselves to think or act decently. A lot of countries are suffering sharply infection and death toll increasing. As of 4:48am on 22 March 2020, 303,001 people have been confirmed positive for coronavirus globally, of which 12,762 have died. Meanwhile, the dire shortage of mask, ICU beds and medical staff is making the battle with coronavirus a hard one. Recently, once the outbreak of coronavirus in mainland China has been initially contained by effectively conducting quarantine policy and medical treatment, the Chinese government races against the clock to assist those countries in need of help by sending medical supplies and experienced staffs. 

Picture 4 Outbreak of novel coronavirus in south of Italy within 10 days

With the globally surge of coronavirus, increasing number of people and governments have been realizing that it is not China or any one country but the novel coronavirus itself is we humans’ only enemy in this campaign. Virus knows no borders, but the worst of times reveals the best in people. Then reviewing the early stage of novel coronavirus outbreak, apart from the political reasons and knowing little about coronavirus, what caused aforementioned bias and violence from ordinary people in western countries against Chinese and the whole Asian area? Viewing the whole period of the spreading and outbreak, it is mainly the cultural differences between west and east that lead to mistaking about ideas and behaviors, among which wearing masks and quarantine are most salient. 

Mask Culture

 In recent 20 years, people in East Asia used to suffer SARS and H7N9 Bird Flu, during which period of outbreak everyone would not go out without wearing mask. Gradually, this protective behavior has been a social normal which not only for protecting virus infection, but also daily to protect people themselves from dust, smog, pollen allergy, etc. Except for the use of disease protection, masks are much favored by people for “fashion trend”, which is influenced by Asian stars. Of all age the said educations in East Asia, being low-key and undemonstrative to others is the principle in social relationship, which is opposite of the western culture of being straightforward and degage. Therefore, Asian stars prefer to wear mask when they are in poor condition such as having no makeup or pimples on face, or sometimes trying to hide themselves from crazy fans and paparazzi. And thence appears numerous fashionistas wearing masks daily with various patterns and designs as fashion icon, which is not regarded as strange even in warm and sunny days. In a word, the word of “mask” is beyond a medical supply, and wearing mask is farther related to sickness, which is stated by Ria Sinha, the senior researcher of Centre for Humanities and Medicine, The University of Hong Kong. 

Picture 5 Chinese people wearing mask in smoggy days

Picture 6 Masks with various patterns 

On the contrary, the idea of masks that are accepted by people in particularly West Europe and America is that only who is sick should wear mask rather than taking it as a way of prophylaxis. Therefore, people may get nervous and scared when they see someone walking on the street wearing a mask. As the Time magazine reports, once a Japanese exchange teacher arrived in the UK, she received a suggestion from the British school that she should better not wear mask during any teaching or communication time otherwise children would get scared. Besides, according to Professor of Sociology in Shumei University, Mitsutoshi Horii, the reason that why western people are usually unwilling to wear masks is related to the way of socializing which they are accustomed to in interpersonal communication. He states that people in western countries are supposed to show their face in the interpersonal communication in order to identify themselves, and moreover, facial expression is crucial to face-to-face converse. 

 In addition, the official propaganda about wearing mask or not shows difference between East Asia and Western countries. Coming back to the very early phase of the outbreak, the Chinese government asked the public to wear mask whenever and wherever they go outside to prevent themselves as well others from novel coronavirus infection by human-to-human transmission. And gradually, wearing mask became a symbol of “solidarity and protection”, and then for more and more people, a sense of collectivity and responsibility. Meanwhile, however, western media, such as the Forbes magazine, CBS and NBC, were suggesting people that there is no need to wear mask. 

Picture 7 Suggestion of not wearing masks by Forbes

Picture 8 CBS reports the idea about wearing mask

Picture 9 NBC reports that keeping hands clean rather than masks if more effective

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommended that no need to routinely use respirators outside of workplace settings. Therefore, combing the afore-listed different ideas surrounding wearing mask between East and West, it is clear to understand the reason of why the feeling of antipathy by the public in western countries showed strongly and they are unwilling to wear mask in early stages of outbreak. 

Attitude towards quarantine

After the novel coronavirus outbreak in Hubei province, Chinese government locked the province down and suggested that people in other areas should better do self-quarantine in end of January 2020, during the period of which is exactly Chinese Spring Festival. As is known to all that the Spring Festival is crucial for all Chinese people, especially among those who have been worked or studied far away from home for a whole year, to have family reunion. Once the quarantine policy was announced, most Chinese did self-quarantine instead of meeting friends or having home party. In addition, those who had not yet back home before the outbreak of coronavirus, chose to make self-quarantine as suggested by the government though which means they would spend the Spring Festival themselves without families kept company. 

On the contrary, the news of the epidemic and increasing number of confirmed cases did not strike terror into the population in western countries. People still immersed themselves in the atmosphere of joy by joining activities on large scale when the novel coronavirus was spreading sharply. For instance, the Women’s Day Parade was conducted in several European countries such as France, Germany and Spain on 8th March 2020, as of which day, 1,126 French, 902 Germen, 589 Spanish and 6,012 Italian were confirmed positive for coronavirus.

Picture 10 Chorus in France on Women’s Day

 A cosplay show, with around 3,500 people dressed as Smurfs participated, likewise, was held in west of France in the same period. 

Picture 11  French Smurfs Cosplay Event on 7th March

When asked about possibility of getting infected due to the highly transmissibility of novel coronavirus, people in mass gathering were not aware of the potential danger and joked about the virus as nothing was happening in Europe. 

Picture 12  “Smurfs” are Joking about the Coronavirus

 Then why the self-quarantine strategy did not work in the West? To this point, the idea of collectivism and individualism as different cultural patterns can be quoted for better understanding of this phenomenon. 

 There is a moral concept in Chinese culture which is known as the “human relations”, and thus “solidarity” and “collective consciousness” are the crucial spirits of social morality. For a long time, Chinese society focus on the thought of “harmony”, which emphasizes that the responsibility of everyone is to respond to and implement the official policy. In addition, it is not the idea and behavior of opposing the views of the majority but swimming with the tide is supported by Chinese traditional culture, which is developed from the idea of “interdependent relationship between people in group”. Therefore, during the battle against the epidemic, person who did not actively quarantine or sometimes went out without wearing mask would be taken as a freak. 

 Contrarily, western culture, which can be taken as a kind of individualism culture, emphasizes the independence between members in a group. In most of western countries, people seldom regard infringing upon the ideas and rights of others due to the influence of the idea of “natural rights” and “freedom”. Besides, they attach significance to personal rights and take the opportunity to show the uniqueness of themselves much, which is influenced by the extreme individualism they are educated since childhood and affected by the social atmosphere. In this case, therefore in western countries, there is no moral things to restrain people to do self-quarantine and not even the governmental policy can keep the public from going out or gathering mandatorily since people would assemble and protest for their human right of freedom. 

A true story about the plague year in a British village

By the end of discussion surrounding the misunderstanding caused by cultural differences in the fight against novel coronavirus, the following story hopefully could show one thing clear that it is the novel coronavirus the only enemy in this campaign and we human should have faith of victory regardless of their culture, nation and ethnicity.

From 1664 to 1666, the UK was ravaged by the last but serious outbreak of Plague, of which over 80,000 people died. Although the epidemic spread from London, north of Britain, however, suffered little and stayed almost safe. It was villagers in Eyam of Derby Shire in midlands of Britain sacrificed themselves to stop the Plague spreading northwards. The outbreak started after the arrival of a businessman from London, who brought the Plague virus to this small Eyam village, and more and more villagers were infected. And soon word came from London about the outbreak of Plague. After serious discussion guided by Pastor William Mompesson, they made the hardest decision of staying instead of evacuating northwards to protect British in north from getting infected, the choice of which, in that era with low medical level, meant death. Villagers blocked the only road to northward and isolated themselves until the outbreak was contained with the death of 267 people among 344 in Eyam after 400 days’ quarantine in August 1666. Such moved by the selflessness and braveness of villagers in Eyam, people nearby sent food and medicine for appreciation and respect during the quarantine time. 

 The spirit of self-sacrifice shown in this true story also deepens people’s respect to Hubei Province in China which was locked down since the Spring Festival and have made sacrifice and contribution for containing the spread of novel coronavirus. The history of fighting against the Plague has never been forgotten and the battle with novel coronavirus will go down in history, since it is not any one country but the humankind is fighting as a community with shared future.

(Writer: Li Zhe, Researcher of ICSF at CUC)


[1]A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe and Paula R. Backsheider, W.W.Norton&Company, 1992.

[2]Chinese in UK Report “Shocking” Levels of Racism after Coronavirus Outbreak, The Guardian UK, 2020.   

[3]Collectivism and Individualism – Different Ethical Values in Chinese and American Cultures as well as Their Cultural Origin, Guo Jinxiu, Journal of Xiaogan University, 2007.

[4]North Yorkshire Police Probe Racist Coronavirus-related Incidents, BBC News, 2020.

[5]Over 3000 French Held the Largest Cosplay Party before The Policy of City Lockdown,, The Southern Metropolis Daily, 2020.

[6]People Participated The Women’s Day Parade Conducted in several European Countries Without Wearing Masks,, Sina News, 2020.

[7]Racism has Spiked in the UK after Coronavirus Outbreak,, Wales Online, 2020.

[8]Why European and American conflict wearing masks while Asian take it as usual behavior,, Mango Weekly, 2020.