How Cultures Panic. What the Coronavirus Teaches Us.

Martin Karaffa
16 min readMar 27, 2020

Longread. Updated 15 March 2020.

It’s 3.57 pm on Wednesday 4th March 2020, at my local Edeka Xpress supermarket in Bogenhausen, a comfy inner suburb of Munich. Before me stands a large stack of toilet paper.

A tall, peaceful, undisturbed stack of toilet paper.

I scour the supermarket to find a shortage of something. UHT milk? Well stocked. Tinned vegetables? Fine. Frozen pizza? Check. And most important, plentiful beer. In Bavaria, confinement at home without beer would be unthinkable.

Contrast this gentle scene with other supermarkets around the world. The press and social media abound with stories of hoarding hysteria. Some nations appear to stay relatively calm — even complacent. Yet others panicked. Why?

Clearly, it’s a matter of culture.

Culture drives our gut instincts. It powers visceral reactions to new situations. It orders our priorities. It tells us what’s right and wrong. It tells us to where to click.

Managing COVID-19 will challenge health authorities across the planet. It’s a global concern, involving healthcare, logistics, government services and new protocols for many private and public behaviours. A response demands greater unified action than the 2008 financial crisis; yet even modest attempts at consensus seem absent.

The global financial system is mechanically interlocked, so it was easier to manage a co-ordinated response. Healthcare systems — and our attitude to health in general — change the moment we cross a border. Those in charge of community safety must manage it on the ground in different ways, acknowledging that humanity varies enormously from one culture to another.

The pre-eminent way to measure such differences is through the cultural dimensions pioneered by the late Geert Hofstede. Many will know them already.

  1. Power Distance (PDI): Is a culture egalitarian, or hierarchical? What is a culture’s attitude to authority?
  2. Individualism (IDV): Does our strength lie in ourselves, or are we strong because we’re part of something bigger?
  3. Masculinity (MAS): Do we value assertiveness, competition and winning, or contentment and quality…

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Martin Karaffa

Marty is an independent strategy consultant specialising in global brands and communications. He is also an Associate Partner of The Culture Factor.