A Cross Cultural Journey Through a Pandemic

As the coronavirus sweeps the planet with all its sad news and darkness, it is juxtaposed against clear skies, transparent waters, whales and fish returning. Bees pollinating apple blossoms on beaming branches. Within just a few weeks, birdsong is no longer drowned out by airplane or distant freeway noises. Our regular haircut appointments are cancelled and we let our hair grow, let the grey come back. We keep our loved ones close as we stand face-to-face with our own mortality, wondering if this is our time to stay or to go? 

The worldwide crisis is acutely evident from an economic and health perspective, and its short and long-term impacts are still unclear. World leaders, scientists and doctors do their best to stay neutral as they search for answers. Here at Cross Cultural Journeys our hearts go out to those families with loved ones who have passed on, to those who are still battling the disease, to those who are home alone, and to the elderly who cannot visit their loved ones during this difficult time.

Even if we have not (yet…) fallen ill or been directly impacted health-wise by the pesky virus, all of us have been told – in one way or another – to live our lives quite differently than what we were used to. I have in many ways welcomed the long break, as a way to find out what matters most. Five years of a busy international travel schedule stalled overnight, I finally got some rest. What’s next in the physical / work realm is entirely unclear. But I also find there is beauty and peace that rests within, amidst the difficulty of planning for the life ahead.

As a life-long anthropologist and incurable cross-cultural bridge builder I am interested in the impact the pandemic is having on individuals and families in their own communities around the world. Here are some updates from friends in the Cross Cultural Journeys family. If you’ve traveled with us before, you might recognize them.

In Havana, Cuba…my friend and colleague Arturo told me that “it is a radical change in the way we live in such a short time. Especially for those who don’t have something strong to hold on to, and you don’t know how long it will last.”  Arturo was traveling through Europe when the pandemic struck, and had to cut his trip short and scramble to get back to his family. When Arturo returned to Cuba from Germany, he had to spend some time in self-isolation before he was able to be reunited with his wife and daughter in their apartment in the Playa neighborhood of Havana.

Don Fitz, author of “Cuban Health Care – the ongoing revolution” writes in a blog post: 

“Those of us old enough to remember that in the 1960s, we could still have a relationship with a doctor without an insurance company interceding can appreciate that social bonds between physicians and patients were eroding in the United States at the same time they were being strengthened in Cuba…Since Cuba brought both AIDS and dengue under control with massive increases and modifications of testing, it was well prepared to develop a national testing program for COVID-19.”

Another one of our Cuba partners, Tania, said “the radical change in daily routine has not been easy, but in my opinion we should see the positive side of everything, even if this epidemic only shows its negative side.”  

Like many places in the world, the Cuban schools were also closed to hinder the spread of illness. But unlike the Zoom calls and online classes in many countries,  Tania tells us that “Children are being taught through the television, they are given tele-classes and they are then given activities to do individually.”

According to the website Cuba Standard, “close to eight weeks since the first reported cases in Cuba, official numbers suggest that the curve of new COVID-19 infections is flattening, with zero new cases predicted for late this month.”

Tania continues: “Here the government is very concerned with the well-being of the population, a public health assistant comes by every day to check in on us, how many of us live in the house, if we are all home, and if there is someone over 60 years of age. They also gave us some homeopathic drops that are to increase immunity in the body and that are supposed to fight the virus without the need to supply us with any other medicine, it serves more as prevention because they are still trying to find the vaccine.” 

In Milan, Italy…my friend and intercultural mentor Milton is safely riding out the stay-at-home order with his wife, son and mother-in-law. “Everybody is doing fine”, he tells me. He reflected on his early career and the two years he was working as a Peace Corps volunteer (a.k.a. PCV) on a tiny island in the West Pacific, and how it prepared him for right now.

In his blog post  “RPCV: Really Prepared for Corona Virus”  he writes: 

“It started with the toilet paper panic. I wondered why I was not remotely tempted to stock up, when it occurred to me that I hadn’t had any toilet paper at all for those two years. To avoid the very unpleasant native practice of using coconut husk fibers, we PCVs carefully saved every international Time magazine we could find. The pages of that edition were thin and flimsy – perfect for the purpose. Occasionally we’d run out of Time, forcing us to use pages of the local newspaper printed on mimeograph paper.” 

Italy was one of the first countries in Europe to enforce a lockdown, beginning March 10. Eight weeks later, the country is slowly starting to emerge, but the road to recovery is expected to be long.

In my native country of Sweden…it is a busy time for my sister Maria who is happily working away in her small jewelry store in the town of Växjö, in the southeastern province of Småland. Graduation and wedding seasons are underway, with a steady stream of customers coming into her small store on a daily basis. “We simply ask our customers to please keep a safe distance”, she says calmly with an air of self-confidence. Sweden has been receiving a lot of heat for their more lax approach during the pandemic, compared to many of their European neighbors. The FHM (the Swedish Ministry of Health), have been criticized by many about why they have not instituted the wearing of face masks when out in public. Dr. Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s lead epidemiologist. is steadfast on that the research about whether or not masks actually protect the general public from infection “is highly questionable”, and that it could instead give a false sense of security that would cause people to feel more relaxed about basic hygiene, like washing hands’ not touching your face, and making sure to keep your distance from others. In an interview with The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, Dr. Tegnell stated: 

“We have closed down the aspects of society what we know from other diseases and from what we have seen in other countries…….we did what we normally do in Sweden when it comes to public health, and that is really telling people to take responsibility and do the things they think would fit them the best in diminishing the threat to spread the disease to other people”. 

The Swedish strategy focuses much more on the long-term impacts in several areas of individual and societal sustainability: public health; economic impact; social and mental health; school and education; and productivity of the workforce, to mention a few. They base it all on what they call the “cold facts of research”, rather than hearsay and tales that may scare the public into submission.

In their book, “Is the Swede Human?” (Henrik Berggren och Lars Trägårdh, 2006; 2015. Tr: “Är svensken människa?”) the authors describe the Swedish people as largely trusting of their government, and more conformist than their Italian and French neighbors, not to mention – regardless of political viewpoints – the the United States, where the average person is much more suspicious of any form of government involvement in individual and family life. Like most Western societies, Swedes value individualism, independence and freedom, which among the Swedes expresses mostly as freedom and independence from one another, rather than from one’s government. 

My dad, who is turning 80 in June, reports from his apartment outside of Stockholm that he has been told to stay home, and to not even go to the grocery store unless absolutely necessary. Since long before the pandemic, he has a daily delivery of ready-made healthy meals. In addition, medical staff comes a couple times a day to make sure he is taking his blood pressure medication. 

“The food in the meal deliveries is very tasty, and there is a lot of it! Each meal lasts me a couple of days, I think I currently have three of them stocked up in my fridge”, he says. “The medical staff is wearing some form of plastic visor in front of their faces right now to protect themselves and the ones they are caring for.”.

During this crisis, it does appear Swedish officials are placing a lot of trust in their citizens, who in return are placing a lot of trust in the government and the FHM to implement the best strategy possible. Time will tell if Sweden’s approach gives the desired results.

Similarly, in Kigali, Rwanda…my old friend and colleague Jeremy tells me “I feel very safe here. They have their shit together.”

On May 3rd the Rwandan government started opening up only parts of the society, in order to keep the spread of the disease at bay. Jeremy writes: “after being the first country in Africa to lock down, we can now report a stellar record of testing, tracing and treatment; a 47% recovery rate; no one in ICU; and no deaths at all. So far.” After a stay-at-home order, Rwanda partially opened up the country again on May 4th. “I am most looking forward to taking one of my patient, neglected doggies on a long, long walk around the neighborhood. Because so many people are scared of dogs here, there should be no problem with physical distancing.” He reflects on what he has learned during the lockdown: “First and foremost, it makes a huge difference when you can trust your government [the government of Rwanda] and most of your fellow citizens to do the right thing in terms of medical treatment, health, safety and food security. It is just amazing what people have done here (and around the world) to help their fellow human beings.”

No stranger to infectious disease and humanitarian crises, on May 9th, Rwanda reported 280 positive cases and 140 recoveries, but so far no deaths. 

Understanding how cultural differences impact the decisions made in each country, as well as in each local community, will continue to form an important part of sustaining life next to death in our human family.

Popular guru and mother goddess Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (a.k.a. Amma), said in a recent interview: 

“There is an undeniable relationship between the entire universe and every living creature within it….whether we are aware of it or not, all of our actions reverberate throughout creation – whether performed as an individual or a group. The universe is like a vast interconnected network….we are not individual islands but links of a common chain…don’t wait for others to change before you do. You can create change on the outside, by changing yourself on the inside, even if others do not…someone else’s problem today will become our problem tomorrow. Similarly, when the virus first surfaced in China, all of us thought it was China’s problem, not ours. Eventually, didn’t it turn out to be our problem? The question is not how they controlled the disease or not, but how we tackle it.”  

To view the full interview with Amma, click here.

Today is mother’s day here in the United States, and it is exactly 3 years ago to the day that my mother Alina passed on. In Sweden (of course :)) Mother’s Day is celebrated on another Sunday later this month. I’m dedicating all days between this mother’s day and that, to all mothers past and present, and to our beautiful Mother Earth.

Intercultural Development Research Institute: Really Prepared for Coronavirus, Milton Bennett
The Economist on Italy’s reopening
USNews.com on Rwanda’s reopening
Trevor Noah’s interview with Sweden’s lead epidemiologist Anders Tegnell

Resilience (blog on Cuba): From AIDS, Dengue and Ebola to COVID19 by Don Fitz
Cuba Standard: Cuba Business and Economic News on COVID19 in Cuba
Full interview with Amma on Coronavirus.

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