COVID-19 One, Responses Many: Did Transcultural Patterns Define Ebbs and Flows?

Delineating the domain of transcultural crisis management, this study by Gita Bajaj of the Institute of Management Technology in Dubai; Surabhi Khandelwal of the Institute of Management Technology Ghaziabad in India; and Pawan Budhwar at the United Kingdom’s Aston University, published as “COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of cross-cultural differences on crisis management: A conceptual model of transcultural crisis management,” in the International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, calls for research to improve crisis preparedness.

As the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, in early 2020, moved from China to Europe to the US, governments and the public in different countries responded differently. Some, such as Taiwan, Thailand, Japan and Vietnam, started screening the incoming travelers for influenza-like symptoms on December 31, 2019, January 3, January 6 and January 11, 2020, respectively, whereas Italy, USA and France started screening on February 3, January 17 and January 25 respectively. Taiwan, we note, started the screening even before WHO or China announced to the world about the mysterious virus, while Italy began to screen more than a month later. Similarly, Thailand, Japan, and Taiwan advised their public to wear masks from the beginning, while others like the USA and France did so two to three months later. These and several other factors point to variation in the sense-making of the crisis.

Variations were observed in patterns of decision making, sense-giving and meaning-making, stakeholder responses and impact of the crises. In Germany, Sweden and Taiwan, the scientific expert’s views played a more dominant role than the opinion of the political leaders and public, which was not so in many other countries such as the USA and Italy, where the opinion clashes were open for discussion. The level of stringency of measures taken also varied. Sense-giving messages disseminated by the political leaders and the public’s response to these messages were diverse, as was the management of the crisis and its impact.

Considering that the medical challenge and the medical community’s advice and views available to all countries were the same, this article explored the contribution of culture to the unfolding of each stage of the crisis. Following a literature review, a model of transcultural crisis management was developed. Seven propositions and 16 sub-propositions to delineate the new field of study at the cross-section of crisis management, transboundary crisis management and cross-cultural crisis management were proposed (see figures below). Based on data available from the most credible sources, the case of the COVID-19 crisis was documented. The role and impact of cross-cultural differences on each stage of crisis management were studied and analyzed.

The findings indicate the effect of cross-cultural differences on the stages of transboundary crisis management. It was found that language and cultural familiarity improve sense-making, and differences in cultural preference of frontstage and backstage behaviour (need for face-saving) reduce sense-making efficacy. Variation in high-context and low-context cultural orientation also affects the efficacy of sense-making. These and many other patterns were observed in different stages of crisis management, indicating promising possible research in the field.

Two propositions and six sub-propositions that refer to the last two stages of transcultural crisis management, namely, termination and lessons learnt, could not be tested as the crisis is ongoing. Therefore, further research to test these propositions is required. Also, the results of this case-based research are purposive and call upon researchers to further examine the domain.

Considering that over the last two decades, the world has witnessed many transboundary crises such as Ebola, Zika, MERS, Swine Flu (H1N1), SARS, terrorist attacks, wars, natural calamities etc., study of the effect of culture on each stage of the transboundary crisis management can give significantly essential insights for better management of transcultural crises.

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Gita Bajaj

Dr. Gita Bajaj is a professor of HR and Communication at Institute of Management Technology (IMT) Dubai.

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