Covid-19: a Conversation about Cultural Differences, Nationalism and Care

Covid-19: a Conversation about Cultural Differences, Nationalism and Care

In this blogpost, Irene Moretti and Erik Bähre have a conversation about the approaches adopted by the Netherlands and Italy to curb the spread of the virus. In doing so, they focus on cultural differences, nationalism and ideas of care.

Nationalism and Inequality
EB: Nationalist sentiments are strong already and I am concerned that this virus and the way in which it is dealt with strengthens nationalism. On this point I have a different view than anthropologist Verkaaik, who argues that this crisis could undermine populist sentiments. There is already a tendency among Dutch people to have orientalist attitudes towards Italy for example, a sense of superiority where ‘they’ have emotions and sociality and corruption and ‘we’ are practical and rational and try to make sure that the economy functions properly. My impression is that this crisis amplifies such sentiments.

IM: Yeah, I noticed the nationalist sentiments you are talking about. They were present in Italy as well, only against the Chinese community. My hope is that this common crisis, this pandemic, will help us to overcome them, from a government to a citizen level. But there is still the incognita of the 'after the crisis is over', the reopening of borders and the re-installment of the Schengen area.

EB: Countries have different approaches to curb the spread of Covid-19; total lockdown vs building a ‘herd immunity’ (the Dutch approach at the moment of writing this blog). On March 18, in parliament, only the leaders of the populist parties, Baudet from Forum voor Democratie and Wilders from the PVV, have raised questions about the different strategies that countries utilize and how Dutch government policy might mean sacrificing lives. Wilders and Baudet tabled a motion for a lockdown, which was not supported by any of the other parties. This might give people the impression that only nationalist parties care about the people and that caring is a national affair.

IM: The measures adopted so far to achieve herd immunity seem to reinforce structural inequalities based on income and status, where the financially able can step out of the herd, by working from home and not catching public transport, while the others don’t have this option.

EB: I sense a sentiment of superiority towards societies that opted for a lockdown. When asked why The Netherlands does not opt for a lockdown, an unnamed RIVM expert suggests that ‘they’ need a legally enforced lockdown because ‘they’ are not behaving responsibly and that ‘we’ Dutch people do not need that.

Caring in Italy and The Netherlands
IM: From my position of an outsider within the Dutch culture, I didn’t notice many differences in terms of individual responsible behaviors. What I noticed, is that here more attention is paid to the economic aspect of the pandemic. I also observe this in everyday life. The differences in the way in which the payment request app Tikkie has been welcomed here and discussed abroad would be a good example. Probably, the language that politicians chose to adopt reproduces, and is influenced by, cultural attitudes towards money, their use and importance. The speeches given by Conte (Prime Minister of Italy) and Rutte (Prime Minister of The Netherlands) differ in terms of content and tone.

EB: Rutte explains that he follows expert advice, that we need to listen to experts. Experts say we should slow down the spread of the virus and not take the maximum measures to stop its circulation. According to Rutte, the measures should strike a balance between taking ‘necessary steps’ and making sure that life goes on as usual. There is no explicit mentioning of people being sick or dying. He points out the urgency and seriousness but also writes that he understands that people are concerned that the children’s party might not go on, or that a weekend with family might have to be canceled and that he understands these worries. There is little room for emotions.

IM: On the contrary, Conte’s speech is quite emotional, yet firm and authoritative. He doesn’t talk at lengths about experts, but only briefly introduces one, whom he appoints to strengthen hospitals’ ability to cope with the situation. He starts his speech by thanking ‘doctors, healthcare professionals, and researchers’ who are working to ‘fight the health emergency and cure our sick people’. Especially in the first part of the speech, thus before announcing the lockdown, his focus is mostly on the sacrifices everyone is making individually for the well-being of the collectivity. As he explains, this moment is first and foremost a health crisis that, at the same time, ‘concerns the stability of our economy, of our production fabric made up of small and medium-sized enterprises.’ Before announcing the need to implement stricter measures that limit individual freedoms massively, Conte makes explicit that ‘In the first place there is and there will always be the health of Italians.’

EB: Rutte also talks about how the virus is impacting on national icons like KLM, people’s jobs, as well as entrepreneurs. He makes a promise to businesses and their employees (that is how he formulates it); that the cabinet will do what is necessary to support them. His speech is 1439 words and 138 words are devoted to the economy and supporting the economy. How does Conte talk about the economy and the government’s role here?

IM: Conte talks about the economy, but only a little, especially when compared to Rutte. He acknowledges that he is asking a lot, even more so in an economic context in which medium-sized and small businesses are very important. Other references to ‘the economy’ can be found in his explanation of how the lockdown will work, which activities can continue, why and under which conditions.

National Differences
EB: Analyzing how countries respond differently is a precarious task, which can easily lead to the reproduction of stereotypical notions of ‘national culture’. We are no medical experts, but we are presented with what seems contradictory expert advice with major consequences for our lives. It does seem that cultural differences play a role in how experts, governments, and citizens respond to the virus and its uncertainties.

IM: Uncertainty plays a big role. To make decisions now is not an easy business and in order to make these very complex decisions people do draw on their worldviews. Yet, as anthropologists we may see not only cultural differences, but also the moralities that underlie the production and application of expert knowledge.

Irene Moretti and Erik Bähre do research on the morality of insurance as part of the Moralising Misfortune project, PI Erik Bähre, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (Grant Agreement No. 682467).


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