Same Data, Different Stories – What Gives?

Cultural Context Helps Explain Why World Leaders Have Such Different Responses to Coronavirus Pandemic Data

It’s early-May in South Korea. After months of combatting Covid-19, the streets of Seoul and Busan are coming back to life. Infection rates are down and the government is relaxing social-distancing guidelines. Korean scientists, government, and business leaders are cautiously optimistic. They watch the charts like hawks while the words of Woo-joo Kim (김우주), Professor of Infectious Diseases at the Korea University College of Medicine – the nation’s top public health expert – repeat over and over again in their minds:

“The moment we become arrogant, we will lose. We have to be humble until the end. It’s not the end until it is over.”

Fast forward three weeks. The tides turn again: On May 27th, the number of daily new cases spikes from 19 to 40. The next day it’s 79. Uh oh. We’ve seen this trendline before…

But then something remarkable happens – the spike stalls out. The number of daily new cases starts trending downward: 58.. 39.. 27.. Over the next 45 days (up to the time of this writing), the number of daily new cases in South Korea remains between 17-67.

Daily New Cases: South Korea (Source: World-O-Meters)

Meanwhile, in the United States, an entirely different story is unfolding:

Daily New Cases: USA (Source: World-O-Meters
Take note of the difference in scaling (Y-axis). If you overlay the South Korea chart, it hardly even registers.

As we can see in the charts above, the US never really had the coronavirus pandemic under control. Yes, the US had a small dip in new cases in May, but the lowest point (18,692 new cases on May 11th) was still 22x higher than South Korea’s peak (851 on March 3). Even when you normalize for population size, the difference is still staggering: if South Korea’s population (51M) were the size of the US (328M), new active cases in South Korea would hover around 300-500 per day – a drop in the bucket compared to the current 65-70k daily average in the US. 

What makes this feat in South Korea especially remarkable, as I noted in my first article in this series – What the Covid-19 Charts Won’t Tell You About South Korea – is the country’s high population density and the fact that Covid-19 is very much driven by proximity. Against the odds, South Korea has largely kept the pandemic in check.

Aerial view of Anyang, South Korea’s 20th largest city, located 21km south of Seoul

In California, which is similar to South Korea in population size, we are currently seeing between 8-10k daily new cases in a population of nearly 40M. If we had South Korea’s latest numbers – the equivalent of California reporting fewer than 20 new cases of coronavirus today – we would be declaring victory by now and Californians would be hanging up their masks (at least until fire season in a couple months).

What Gives?

More than enough ink has already been spilled trying to explain why countries like South Korea are faring so much better than most in terms of Covid-19 cases and deaths. Are they better prepared? Are there different strains of Covid-19? Or is there something special in the water? (Personally, I’m rooting for Kimchi as the antidote.)

Instead of jumping on the speculation bandwagon, I want to focus more on why there is so much variation in the way countries interpret Covid-19 data and spring into action.

On one hand, it’s no surprise at all. Nations have different interests and priorities, and so the way they interpret and respond to major global events – trade wars, real wars, natural disasters – can vary dramatically. 

On the other hand, however, the moment we’re in right now is totally unprecedented. For the first time in history, all of humanity is galvanized around the exact same goal. Every world leader wants to bring the coronavirus pandemic to an end with the lowest possible toll on human life. We all want the same outcome and (hopefully) everyone is rooting for everyone else. 

There’s just one problem: Nobody really knows what comes next or whether we are even heading in the right direction. There are no clear benchmarks or mile markers. From the country level all the way down to individual cities and counties, everyone is looking to their neighbors for grounding and perspective: What metrics are they using? How do their numbers compare? What actions are they taking? When? Are those actions working? Why?

The situation invites an endless number of questions related to data analysis. I think the following sums it up best:

How can world leaders come to such radically different conclusions about what the coronavirus data means and how aggressively to act on it?

Metrics, Actions and Cultural Values

As a country, you have an arsenal of measures you can take to combat the spread of the virus – lockdowns, contact tracing, issuing masks, enforcing masks, disinfecting public spaces, et al. But the effectiveness of these measures varies as the virus spreads. Contact tracing, for example, works much better at the start of an outbreak before it goes exponential, at which point it becomes far too complex to track with current solutions. 

To get the best outcome, you want to deploy the right measures at the right time. How do you decide which lever to pull and when? Generally speaking, you have to (1) take stock of your cultural values, (2) determine the most relevant metrics based on those values, (3) collect and monitor data that feeds into those metrics, and then (4) spring into action when the metrics fall out of your acceptable range. 

South Korean cleaning crews disinfecting a department store in Seoul. Take note of the personal protective equipment (PPE): Cleaning crews in South Korea are decked out in better PPE than most doctors in the US.

Here’s an example: South Koreans place a much higher value on health, wellness, family, and community than politics or the economy. In their view, the coronavirus represents an urgent threat to human life, which they hold dear, and it must be completely eradicated. Give the virus an inch and it will take a mile – and that will not do. So, when a team of South Korean contact tracers discovered that an employee of Seoul’s largest department store came into contact with someone with a confirmed active case, what did they do? The government immediately shut down the entire store while cleaning crews disinfected the 930,000 square foot space. If that sounds like an overreaction, consider that South Korea’s Covid-19 death toll is 296 compared to 140,000 deaths and climbing in the US. Normalizing for population size, that’s 430 deaths for every million people in the US compared to six deaths per million in South Korea. 

As Koreans demonstrate time and time again, they are willing to move mountains to stop the spread of Covid-19. Some of the measures South Korea is taking may seem absurd or excessive to the average American – and that is precisely the point I want to make:

Data only makes sense in context, which largely stems from culture.

Whether you are talking about an individual or an entire country, the way people interpret data and act upon it depends on their frame of reference – the particular way they view the world. This lens is shaped by one’s environment, relationships, and past experiences – all of which are largely driven by one’s culture. Someone growing up in Tongyeong, a small fishing village outside of Busan, for instance, will no doubt experience life and view the world much differently than someone born and raised in Dallas-Fort Worth. 

Cultural context helps explain why we see such a wide range of pandemic response strategies around the world today. Simply put: People in different places value different things. South Koreans value health and family; Americans value individual freedom. Neither is wrong – each is right in its own way.

Cultural Context and Covid-19

Unlike the US, South Korea is a country that remembers when disease and poverty were basic realities of everyday life. An entire generation of Koreans who lived through the country’s astronomical rise over the past 40 years are still alive today. They fear going back to a world where hunger and disease routinely kill people. Memories of loved ones tragically lost – sadly, often young children – for reasons that are now mostly preventable are never far from mind. They experienced tremendous hardship and take care to ensure that future generations don’t lose sight of this part of their heritage. 

Koreans over the age of 55 remember the hardships firsthand. Most who are in their 40s will remember at least some poverty firsthand, and certainly grew up hearing stories about it. Those in their 30s may have escaped poverty, but they were no doubt raised by parents who lived through it.

A typical Korean kitchen prior to the economic boom. My wife remembers feeding logs into a furnace just like this one, which was also used to heat the floors inside the house.

In the US, we don’t have the same fear of death and pestilence. Instead, we fear oppression and being controlled – especially at the hands of the government. It’s perhaps no coincidence that during this same period of time when South Korea was emerging from poverty, the US was in the thick of the Cold War and communism was public enemy number one. 

The US economy was also booming at the time, with a post-WWII economic expansion that would later come to be known as the “golden age of capitalism.” That’s hugely relevant here because, generally speaking, when countries get rich, individualism becomes more prevalent. That was certainly the case in the US, where individualism was already central to the national identity. Add a massive economic expansion and widespread fear of communism on top of that baseline and you can start to see why some Americans today so fiercely defend their personal independence. 

In Korea, however, newfound wealth has not lured the nation down this same path – at least not yet. Individualism is more common today than half a century ago, but Korean society started from a different baseline. For the majority of Koreans, life and family still remain sacred, as well as a healthy fear of invisible killers.

That’s not the entire story, of course. While these brief histories can help provide some insight into the cultural context behind each country’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic, there’s far more factoring into the equations.

To get a sense of the breadth, here’s a short list of other striking cultural differences:

South KoreaUnited States
Unified central government enables the country to make bold decisions and move swiftlyHighly-partisan multi-level government forces the country to move slowly and unsurely
Government, business, and scientists have a long history of working together in the interest of national prioritiesGovernment, business, and scientists rarely work together and are often adversaries
Government leaders are quick to apologize when mistakes are madeGovernment leaders rarely apologize, even when they are caught lying
Every male receives basic military training, instilling patriotism and a respect for authority and obeying ordersRebellion and independence are glorified; citizens are conditioned to distrust the government
Recent MERS and H1N1 outbreaks provided valuable experience combating viral diseases and prompted greater national vigilance A 2009 H1N1 outbreak provided valuable experience combating viral diseases, but did not prompt greater national vigilance
Mask wearing is routine because of poor air quality and a cultural tendency toward preventive health and wellnessMask wearing is rare, and in some contexts considered socially deviant; most citizens take a reactive approach to health and wellness
High population density throughout the country (1,366 people per square mile)Relatively low population density (94 people per square mile)
Highly optimistic about the future; education is of paramount importance and people are willing to make sacrifices now in the interest of future generationsLargely apathetic; younger generations have resigned to the idea that they will never be as financially successful as their parents and grandparents; older generations feel little to no obligation to future generations
NOTE: This table includes some generalizations about life and culture in each country that are actually far more complex and nuanced than represented here. For example, while South Koreans are highly optimistic about the future, the country also has a suicide problem.

And here’s a quick look at how that’s playing out so far:

United States

South Korea

How will the impact of the coronavirus pandemic echo into the future and impact decision making decades or even centuries from now? What other factors will come into play? Time will tell. 

Koreans today, for instance, are currently living through an economic boom that resembles the American economy thirty years ago. If the trend remains intact and the nation’s wealth continues to multiply, will future generations hold onto the same values that exist today? By that time, first-hand accounts of sickness and poverty will have aged and likely faded. Stories about wooden outhouses and wood stoves will be replaced by craft beer and grilling Beyond Burgers at family barbecues. Following this line of reasoning, it’s easy to see how Koreans born today may end up behaving a lot like Americans when another major crisis hits 30 years from now. 

What we do know for certain is that future generations will have a whole lot more data to work with, and far more sophisticated tools for analyzing the data as well. At the same time, it’s also a safe bet that future world leaders will come to conclusions that are equally as varied as we see today. Why? Because there are no absolute truths in data analysis – only interpretations. 

When two people look at a data set and come to different conclusions, it’s easy to assume that one of them is not being data driven. But that’s not necessarily what’s happening. More often than not, it’s just that they are viewing the data with different cultural context.

This article is part of an ongoing series on Data Analysis in the Coronavirus Pandemic. Other articles in this series include:

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Published by Matthew Halliday

Co-founder, EVP of Product Strategy at Incorta. Passion for design, UX, data, stories, and making beautiful things.

One thought on “Same Data, Different Stories – What Gives?

  1. The start of a good decision can be the point where I stop proceeding with a poor decision… with the benefit of hindsight my poorer decisions were not based on facts but on illusions I believed to be true at the time.

    In a great quick read ‘Yes or No ‘ argues, make a head decision based on the facts… ask your self does this decision feel right if it does go ahead… if it doesn’t go back to the facts. Head decisions backed up by heart decisions.

    Head and heart, what we believe to be true, our values and behaviours originate in our gene pool and for most are dominated by the Village communities that we grew up in and produced ‘the child’.

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