American University of Beirut

The Surprising Role of Culture in Increasing Susceptibility to Pandemics

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Does a country’s culture shape its vulnerability to pandemics? AUB OSB Professor Muhammad Aljukhadar attempts to answer this question. He postulates that cultural factors might be the first line of defense against pandemics. Particularly, there are two cultural dimensions, originally advanced by a famous cross-cultural psychologist named Geert Hofstede[1], that could explain the likelihood of such vulnerability: Uncertainty Avoidance and Indulgence. The former refers to the degree to which a certain society is comfortable with ambiguity or unstructured situations, while the latter is the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses.

Culture: the missing ingredient in strategies and forecasts
In late 2019, when COVID-19 was in its early stages of emergence, the information communicated was provisional as news outlets attempted to make sense of the unidentified threat. The question that progressively interested policy makers and researchers was: why have some countries proven to be more prone to this pandemic compared to others?

The convergence point, between several countries that displayed low resistance to the epidemic, was that they scored high on uncertainty avoidance and low on indulgence. Examples include Italy, Iran, Japan, and South Korea, which ranked at the top of the charts before the virus was declared a pandemic. If Aljukhadar’s observation is correct, policymakers and business executives should take note of its possible implications.

Relay, not delay
These two cultural dimensions could be essential to understand people’s initial responses to pandemics. During the early phases of a pandemic’s evolution, cultural factors could be related, though not exclusively, to its exponential spread. Yet, as credible information gradually becomes available, the role of culture weakens. Delaying action until credible information is absorbed by societies could be very costly or even deadly in the case of COVID-19. Thus, policymakers cannot afford to ignore the role of culture in making some communities more susceptible to the virus.

What goes around comes around
“We are on the same planet and cultural adjustments are needed”, noted Dr. Aljukhadar. When one country fails to limit the spread, additional waves in other countries will follow. If leaders fail to understand the role of culture and do not develop the right mindsets to face pandemics, this will increase vulnerability from one country to another. 

To read Dr. AlJukhadar's full article, click here.
Are you a faculty, interested to collaborate with Dr. Al Jukhadar on this research? Contact him at

(Interview and article by Maria Nassif)​

[1] Geert Hofstede (1928-2020), a famous Dutch cross-cultural psychologist, posited that cultures differ along six dimensions, scored from low to high. These dimensions are individualism-collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, power distance, masculinity-femininity, long-term orientation, and indulgence. Aljukhadar’s hypothesis is that two of these six could make some countries more susceptible to pandemics.

© 2020 American University of Beirut, Olayan School of Business. All rights reserved.​​​

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