By Iasmina Voinea: Culture Columnist

Until recently, hugs, kisses, and handshakes were culturally accepted ways of greeting someone and meeting up was an integral part of personal relationships. But the rise of COVID-19 brought strict lockdown measures across the world; face-to-face interactions were replaced by Skype or Zoom calls, and all forms of socialising with people outside of your household were strictly forbidden in most countries. While lockdown is not obligatory anymore, people are still encouraged to stay at least two metres from each other to avoid catching and spreading the virus. In the wake of these sudden cultural changes, it is worth asking: how have people adapted to this sudden social distancing? Do certain cultures approach social distancing differently?

In anthropology, high-contact cultures are defined as cultures in which “people tend to touch each other more often, maintain closer interpersonal distance, make more eye contact, and speak louder”, with examples including Mediterranean, Latin American, Eastern European, and Arab countries. In low-contact cultures, however, interactions are less tactile and personal space is usually maintained. Some examples include China, Japan, and northern European countries.

With a culture oriented around socialising, France was perhaps a little slower at adapting to the government measures of curbing the spread of the virus. After government officials advised people to stay inside, people still flocked the streets, forcing authorities to implement a partial lockdown. “A lot of people have not understood that they need to stay at home, and this low level at which people have adhered means that we are not succeeding in curbing the outbreak of the epidemic,” health official Jerome Salomon told France Inter radio.

People are encouraged to stay at least 2 metres away from each other

Soon, the habit of sharing meals with friends and family was replaced by the occasional takeout; cinemas, museums, and bars were shut; and people had to carry permission slips when they left their house. Like France, Italy too has had to adapt to these drastic changes, and the now-viral videos of people singing on balconies prove just how important social interactions are in certain cultures.

While the rest of Europe imposed tough lockdown measures, Swedish authorities opted for the opposite. Despite having one of the highest coronavirus-per-capita death rates in the world, citizens were merely advised to voluntarily distance from one another. Although the country was criticized internationally for its “mad experiment”, the majority of the population agreed with government officials, simply viewing the virus as a national health crisis.

This relaxed approach may have to do, in part, with the Swedish culture of seeking nature, avoiding crowded areas, and refusing to bother people with small talk. On the other hand, activist Nuri Kino believes that the Swedish government failed to understand immigrant communities. “We socialise differently, the culture is different to the Swedish ethnic culture when it comes to social life.” “It’s another of the reasons why we were more affected by the coronavirus, unfortunately,” he continued. As COVID-19 is an on-going issue, and the entire world is still advised to practise social distancing, the debate continues: what role does culture play when it comes to these policies?

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