As countries ease and then tighten restrictions, the timetable to recovery remains uncertain. Dr Rodney Collins PhD considers how culture plays an outsized role in the responses that diverse peoples take to the re-opening process.

The pandemic journey

The pandemic may no longer be the primary concern in people’s minds around the world, but there is no doubt we are still deeply locked in crises. We asked people about the one thing they hope will no longer exist after the pandemic ends. While the virus ranked first, racism and inequality were second and third. Although there is enormous energy and momentum supporting the potential for change, it’s important to be honest about the extent of the cultural change that we will see.

McCann Worldgroup’s Global Pandemic Journey Map tracks the intersection of four interlocking crises: a health crisis, an economic crisis, a political crisis, and a psychological crisis

How lasting will unprecedented changes endure?

You might remember the groundswell of enthusiasm that people around the world expressed about sourdough baking, online pub quizzes, and household gardens? In our most recent survey, we checked in to see how enduring these new habits, hobbies, and behaviours might be.

In the UK alone, nearly 51% of people say they are unlikely to continue these activities in the long-term. For many of the other 49%, rather than the adoption of new behaviours, they claim an intensification of previous activities: more reading, more gardening, more cooking. This is not to diminish the activities of those few who have built boats, learned Sanskrit, or mastered the Rubik’s cube. But it is to highlight that even a global pandemic is not prompting significant changes in the lives of the majority.

In fact, as we observe re-openings across the world, we are witness to much of what we have seen before. As one of our respondents in Serbia pointed out: “The ‘new normal’ as we imagined is not what we got. For example, if you wear a mask, you can easily become the subject of laughter, and it seems we haven’t learned much.”

Culture and the ‘Covid compass’

In our first wave of research, three in ten people around the world stated that government was re-opening society too quickly (51% in the UK and 35% in the US). Fast forward to this week when those beliefs have fluctuated in line with the changes in national infection rates; the US has now risen (47%) and the UK has dropped (39%). It’s safe to say that as we navigate the months, and possibly years, of pandemic existence, attitudes towards re-opening and restrictions will correlate with known infection rates.

Further, it is apparent that these attitudes towards new rules and safety advice also provide some suggestions about the constancy of culture in the attitudes that are brought to bear on the coronavirus pandemic.

The Cautious: This is the largest global segment. The Cautious are carefully following the rules. Given well-established cultural histories of rule-following and bureaucratic procedures, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the British (66%) and Germans (60%) over-index in this segment while Russia (32%) and China (34%) under-index. This segment is also more likely to be concerned that lots of people will die and to report increased levels of anxiety.

The Conditionals: A fifth of people are somewhat flexible with the rules, following some but not others. This segment of the population is more likely to be concerned about the economy than the rest of the world and is likely to place economic and practical concerns ahead of any behavioural changes. This segment over-indexes in China (29%) and Japan (33%).

The Contrarians: The smallest segment (6%), the Contrarians are mostly ignoring the rules and are most likely to believe that dating will be safe before we have a vaccine. This segment over-indexes in Russia and Turkey with twice the global average at 11%. It also tellingly under-indexes in the UK (2%).

The Careless: Not happy with the rules in place, this segment is following their own rules, in part because they feel the government has let them down and they’re unable to find information they can trust. Turkey (21%) and China (19%) host the highest ratio of this segment.

The Clueless: About one in ten people globally don’t know what the rules are. This segment is less likely to agree that we are re-opening society too quickly. This segment over-indexes in India, where 17% of the population states uncertainty about any guidelines.

While this segmentation paints the portrait of the global population with relatively broad brushstrokes, attitudes towards rules and guidelines are not only a matter of the current moment but are well-established behaviours that extend into embedded cultural ambitions.

Take the UK as a case study, even in a context where 53% of the population states that ‘the government has let us down’, 83% of the population states that they believe it’s most important to follow the rules to protect others. This is a cultural consistency, even if it is a logical contradiction.

Why does this matter?

There has been great readiness to imagine a world that will look and behave differently coming out of the pandemic. Early indications suggest that this is unlikely; societies around the world are lapsing back into well-established patterns of cultural behaviour.

Rather than view this period as one that will provide a portal to a radically transformed future, we might better consider how the pandemic is a mirror that reflects the durable, the persistent, and the constant factors of our cultural milieu.

What are those aspects of culture that people are ready to hold onto rather than those they are all too eager to let go of?

Combining this understanding with a well-defined brand purpose will provide an anchor of security for brands who have already earned their meaningful role in people’s lives. It will also be a clarion call to those brands which are struggling to define that role or their meaningful place in culture.

The responses have been encapsulated in Truth Central’s ‘Covid Compass’ which has been designed to help brands and organisations better understand the cultural variances at play in a pandemic world where the road ahead is highly unpredictable. 

For more about The Covid Compass or the methodology behind MW Truth Central’s Truth about Culture and Covid research, click here.