Social norms can save lives

With nearly 2.4 million dead from Covid-19 and more than 100 million people infected, the end of the pandemic remains a distant prospect in many countries, even those with sufficient stocks of vaccines. Nonetheless, it is clear that some countries have done a much better job of containing the virus; in some cases by a certain degree of size. Consider, for example, the United States and Japan. The United States has a population 2.6 times that of Japan, but has lost nearly 100 times as many citizens – 500,000 versus 5,000. Mexico, which has a population similar to that of Japan, has lost 150 000 citizens; Canada, which has 30 percent of Japan’s population, lost 21,000.

Aside from the inevitable variations in climate, relative wealth, hospital facilities, and governance, the ability to implement effective containment measures appears to be tied to a society’s willingness to follow social norms. A study published in The Lancet reveals that “strict adherence to social norms is a key mechanism that enables groups” to limit the number of cases and deaths. In general terms, the study distinguishes between “loose” countries – which break the rules and protect individual freedoms more – and “tight” cultures. Bulk countries are often diverse, democratic and innovative; tight more conservative and traditional. Writing in the Guardian, the professor who led the study notes that “research in nation states and small-scale societies has shown that communities with a history of chronic threat – whether natural disasters , infectious diseases, famines or invasions – develop stricter rules that ensure order and cohesion. Importantly, she adds: “No type is better or worse – until a global pandemic strikes.”

During a pandemic, breaking the rules can cost lives. Using data from UK company YouGov, researchers found that “people in loose cultures were much less afraid of the Covid19 virus throughout 2020, even when cases were skyrocketing.” In contrast, those from narrow nations were frightened everywhere (70 percent vs. 49 percent). This discrepancy helps explain the fact that although the United States contains one-twentieth of the world’s population, it produced a quarter of the total cases.

Another Lancet study paints an even more damning picture of the impact a skeptical government can have on results in a given country. The Lancet argues that if the Trump administration’s policies had been more aligned with those of other G7 countries, the current death toll could have been 40% lower.

“Instead of galvanizing the American people to fight the pandemic,” the Lancet notes, “President Trump has publicly rejected his threat (although he has privately acknowledged it), has discouraged action as the infection was spreading and avoided international cooperation. “After withdrawing from the WHO and refusing to define a coherent national strategy,” President Trump politicized the wearing of masks and the reopening of schools and organized indoor events attended by thousands of people, where masks were discouraged and physical distancing impossible ”. The United States is far from the only country to suffer such an abdication of leadership. Rider governance in Brazil, India, Turkey and the UK has produced similar results.

Covid cases and deaths continue to rise across Latin America and the Caribbean. The most recent statistics from the WHO show that Venezuela has around 131,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,200 deaths; Brazil with nearly 10 million confirmed cases and 235,000 deaths; Suriname with around 9,000 confirmed cases and 160 deaths. As the entire world rushes to vaccinate its citizens faster than Covid mutations can infect them, good governance, adherence to rules and strategies, and consistent communication will remain more important than ever.

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About Marjorie C. Hudson

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