How The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Challenging Cultures : Rough Translation This week on Rough Translation, we check in with NPR international correspondents in China, Germany and Greece about the ways that culture shapes—and is reshaped by—responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How Covid-19 Is Challenging Cultures

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Hey, you're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner, speaking to you from my home studio, aka my closet. This may be weird to say, but I am feeling very grateful for my closet right now, and I hope that all of you are doing OK.


WARNER: The coronavirus has us all asking a lot of questions, including about our own behavior, how we are with each other. And that's true not just for individuals but also for countries, cultures. We all have different standards about what's normal, what's appropriate. Even though the whole world is facing the same pandemic, the responses are so different. And for some countries, the way their governments are approaching this is oddly affirming their way of life and their sense of who they are as a society, while other countries are having to rethink the way they do everything.

So we threw this episode together - just really threw it together in the last two days. I checked in with three international correspondents, correspondents who are themselves having to question how they do reporting when they're also being told to keep their distance. And we wanted to know which places is this crisis inspiring faith in the authorities and affirming to people the way they are with each other and where has it completely rattled the way people think of themselves.

We're going to start in China with our correspondent Emily Feng. You may remember Emily from last month's episode. She has been reporting on the coronavirus since the story first came out in January, meanwhile, also finding time to tweet a very delicious-looking picture of homemade bread in a pot which she titled, Corona bread, Day 2.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: I do love baking. I do bake when I'm stressed/bored. And I have more time now, and there's nowhere to go. So (laughter) yes, I am baking, and I am fermenting.

WARNER: How are you managing to do reporting given that movement is so limited right now?

FENG: It's been all over the phone and social media. So I'm part of a number of telegram groups. I reach out to people through WeChat, WhatsApp, Signal. I'm on Facebook quite a lot because people tend to post family updates.

WARNER: Emily says that over the last few months, people have expressed all kinds of feelings about COVID-19, feelings that in China can be dangerous to say out loud, but people are doing it anyway. First, people were outraged that the government covered up the seriousness of the virus in Wuhan. They felt betrayed and vulnerable, and they took to social media to express their anger. Local journalists, usually discouraged from this kind of reporting, were doing enterprise stories about the government's failures. And then when the government responded by locking down cities and confining millions of people inside their homes, that anger grew. Emily spoke to hundreds of people who felt trapped and abandoned.

FENG: Stories of people who needed surgeries or cancer treatment or blood transfusions or kidney dialysis or a breathing machine, but they could not get what they usually would get at a hospital because they didn't have the virus.

WARNER: And they told her this was not the China that they thought they knew. China is, of course, not a free-speech country, but it does promise to protect its citizens. And now, a lot of people were rattled that the government could not even do that. These were mostly anonymous voices. Emily got used to changing names. But there was even one guy who decided to get out on TV and express all the anger that people were feeling.

FENG: His name is Zhong Wonho (ph). He's a director at a pretty prominent Shanghai hospital. And sometime in late January - this is when the outbreak started to get really, really bad - he gave this press conference interview in which he kind of just lost his temper. He told reporters that frontline medical staff had been working multiple shifts at a time with no relief. And he decided that he was going to rotate all frontline medical staff out and put in Communist Party officials to replace these medical staff. And he's on this tape, saying...


ZHONG WONHO: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: ...Doesn't the party always say, put the people's interests first? Let's see them act on what they say.

And his comments went viral because at that point, people had this widespread perception that the Communist Party of China was not doing enough to contain the virus.

WARNER: So that was press conference No. 1. But then exactly a month later, the same guy gets back in front of the cameras and the microphones and his tone is totally different.

FENG: And he's much calmer now. In this interview, he looks quite tired.


ZHONG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: And he says, you know, China's put these quarantine measures in place nationwide for a month now. The entire country has united together and designated the coronavirus a critical issue and contained this disease.

WARNER: Part of the doctor's change of heart might well be fear. Some of the loudest critics of the government's performance have been recently disappeared. But it's also true that China's coronavirus numbers are dropping, and people noticed that. And instead of expressing betrayal, they were telling Emily they felt proud and affirmed, like the Chinese way of doing things was right all along.

This feeling gets strengthened, she says, when the news shows other countries using very similar strategies to the Chinese, like citywide lockdowns and even, in some places, hotlines where you can call and report your neighbor for showing symptoms. People tell her, look; the Chinese way works. Just look at the rest of the world.

FENG: And so if you criticize the Chinese Communist Party as a Chinese person in China, you not only look unpatriotic, but you also just look factually wrong because there is no other standard by which to compare yourself to.

WARNER: And the Chinese government started to see COVID-19 as an opportunity for global PR.

FENG: Oh, completely. At the very beginning, they were already saying that China's very centralized, authoritarian model of governance - though, of course, they didn't use the word authoritarian - was advantageous to marshalling resources as quickly as it did to contain the virus.

And now that Italy, the U.S., Iran, they're struggling with similar outbreaks, China has made a show of quote-unquote "donating medical supplies" to these countries, though, in reality, countries like Italy are actually paying - they're buying for - buying these medical supplies.

WARNER: But the bigger change she's seeing is inside China as the government uses this moment to tighten its grip.

FENG: The technological surveillance aspect, which is not a new trend in China. They have been using all sorts of software and hardware to better track where people move, what they talk about, what they're thinking, what they like, what they're buying. And because people are in a psychologically vulnerable state during an outbreak, different provinces in China have been able to roll out different types of apps that, at the end of the day, what they do is monitor where people go and who they meet up with and where they travel to.

We don't know yet how widespread the implementation of these apps is going to be, but it's possible that the authorities are laying down a patchwork system of monitoring people's movements that could be deployed in future outbreaks, or it could become a regular feature of daily life.

WARNER: Emily Feng, thank you so much for the update.

FENG: I hope that was, like, useful. Let me send you this...

WARNER: No, that was great.

FENG: ...Tape sync and then the tape I talked about.

WARNER: Yeah. And send me some recipes because I think I'm going to be spending some time doing - fermenting and sourdoughing (ph) as well.

FENG: Sourdough, yeah. Get on that. It takes two weeks to do a starter, though.

WARNER: Two weeks - I got two weeks, at least of being homebound like this. But this reality that so many of us are living right now - empty streets, shuttered stores, canceled schools - that is not what Germany looked like when we spoke to Rob Schmitz just this Monday.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, looking out the window here in my apartment in central Berlin, it's a beautiful day. It's probably one of the first days of spring. And there is really no difference from during non-coronavirus times. There is construction going on across the street from us. There are cars going up and down the street. There are pedestrians. And I go outside maybe once a day to go running.

But, you know, I went running on Saturday, and I usually go to this park about a kilometer away and run around the park. And what was interesting for me is that on my Saturday run, I was - I sort of just stopped running because I saw, like, thousands of people in the park. And I kind of ran home after that because I - you know, it was clear that...

WARNER: You ran away.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, I ran away. I mean, there's just so many people that I think that they were all sort of putting each other at risk. And you know, this is at a time when each day we're seeing, you know, 20, 30% or higher rate of increase of confirmed cases of coronavirus here in Germany and in Berlin as well.

WARNER: Rob says that to understand why the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was not ordering country-wide lockdowns as in, say, France, which has actually fewer cases, Rob says you have to go back to Germany's past - way back.

SCHMITZ: Because I think what I'm seeing is a country that is still getting over a time when everybody was under surveillance and where it was a police state. And it's really still coming to terms with that history.

WARNER: You mean World War II?

SCHMITZ: Well, I mean World War II, but I also mean post-war Soviet-occupied GDR, you know, East Germany because, you know, obviously, Berlin - actually, where I live in Berlin - was, you know, behind the Iron Curtain. And so I think there's this sense that I see among lawmakers here in Germany to try to do whatever it can carefully to try and skirt away from, you know, a centralized - or return to a centralized power.

You know, Angela Merkel last week had her first press conference about the virus in which she just basically told everyone, look; 60% to 70% of you - everyone who's listening to my speech here in Germany, you will likely get this virus under the present circumstances. And it was a really candid thing for a leader to say. And she went on to say, German federalism works. It allows decisions to be made in a decentralized and targeted manner.

WARNER: It's an odd time for a civics lesson in the middle of an international crisis, but Merkel seemed proud to point out that this pandemic had only affirmed the German dedication to federalism and decentralized government.

SCHMITZ: And it's interesting. I mean, that's basically what the federal government of Germany has done. It's given warnings, it's given recommendations, but it has stopped short of giving mandates.

WARNER: And is the fear that once you take power like that, you somehow break something?

SCHMITZ: I think that this type of seizing of power is looked at extremely skeptically.

WARNER: And the German people seemed happy about that. They get to make their own decisions, take a run in that park if they want to. And then Rob called me with an update.

SCHMITZ: It was probably within about four or five hours.

WARNER: Angela Merkel had gotten up and given a new speech with a direct order.

SCHMITZ: This order to have all nonessential shops shut down, to basically shut down all of Germany's tourism infrastructure and shut down the borders. She did make reference to - this is an unprecedented action that I'm taking. And, you know, just by saying that, you sort of know that she understands the nature of what she's doing here.

But like I typically do, I went for my daily run today. I just got back, actually - went to the same park that I usually go to. But today there were a lot of young people. They were playing beach volleyball. They were on the jungle gyms - you know, all sorts of things. I don't think it's really set in yet. I don't think people realize how serious this is yet.

WARNER: Yeah. Glad you're able to keep running, keep exercising during the...

SCHMITZ: (Laughter).

WARNER: And, you know, hope you can figure out a way to keep reporting given that, even - I don't know. Some ways...

SCHMITZ: Yeah, well, I'm about to hop on an interview in a minute here. And so I think, you know, from now on, I'll be doing stuff sort of remotely. And that's kind of sad because as a reporter - you know, I'm a foreign correspondent because I like to go out and meet people, you know, face-to-face, shake their hands, get to know them. It's more difficult to do that when you're on a phone line, I think.

WARNER: Coming up, we take you to one last country where scores of people share a single spoon - think about that in the age of corona - when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

This is ROUGH TRANSLATION. Joanna Kakissis, our reporter in Greece, has been watching this kind of real-life horror movie, the kind with the slow-motion scene of people strolling into danger, except in this story, the players are priests and scientists and wine. Joanna explains.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So usually, this time of year in Greece and - it's like, the Easter Sunday - the Easter holiday - Greek Orthodox Easter is the biggest holiday over here - lots of people attending services in the run-up to Easter Sunday, anticipating this big celebration that's coming up with, you know, roast lamb and people dancing. It's a time of year that's normally very happy, with lots of people running around, anticipating this great moment.

So when the coronavirus news first hit, doctors and scientists were on the news pretty much right away, saying, you know, I don't think it's such a good idea for you all to be going to church because we don't know what this virus could do. And we feel like it could be very, very serious. Communion is administered - it's a chalice full of sweet wine and little pieces of bread, and it's administered through a shared spoon. I mean, everybody uses the same spoon. And it's very dangerous.

WARNER: Especially for an older population - that is, the churchgoing population - right?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, exactly. I mean, these are people who are - tend to be mostly, actually, in their 70s and 80s. And, you know, doctors were terrified. But what the church did - I mean, the church didn't want to lose its most valuable few weeks, you know, leading up to this very important holiday. It was saying things like, you know, Holy Communion comes from God. It can't spread the infection. If you have faith in God, you won't get anything. And this was infuriating the medical community and scientific community and really making the government very, very nervous.

So I had this conversation with a couple of my relatives, my aunt Zaharoula (ph) and my cousin Fauti (ph). My aunt Zaharoula is 84. She is, like, the Greek Orthodox church's biggest fan. She has never missed a church service. She goes to Bible study group. She can - she listens to the Greek Orthodox radio every day. And it - and the priests tell her, communion is part of who you are.

So her son, who is - he's religious, but he's a physicist by training, so facts always supersede religious ritual for Fauti, for my cousin. And he's been telling her, Mom, think of Dad. God can't protect Dad right now, you know? Like, the only thing that can protect Dad is if you stay home.

So these kinds of conversations - I've been talking to other people - have been happening all over the city and all over the country. And the people like my aunt Zaharoula, who look really pained having to give this up because - she still very, very much thinks that she's giving up on God by doing it and also giving up on being Greek because, like, every time my aunt goes and partakes of communion, she feels like she's reinforcing all the sacrifices, in her mind, that the church made to help Greece win the war of independence from the Ottoman Empire.

And it also makes her feel very much like, in this world that's constantly changing around her where she doesn't understand - you know, she doesn't get the music. She doesn't get sort of, like, you know, some of the modernity that she sees around her. The church makes her feel, you know, like that young village girl that celebrated the church and the history that it has behind it in making Greece what it is today.

WARNER: So then for your aunt or for others like her for whom going to church is so central to their identity as Greeks, if they don't go, what happens to that identity? How do they start seeing themselves differently?

KAKISSIS: You know, that's a good question, and I'm not sure if I know the answer. I think the church could help answer some of this fear. I mean, there was a priest that actually came out on a radio show saying just that. He was a younger priest, of course. He was a priest in his 50s. But he said, God looks into your heart. He doesn't do a head count of who attends church and who takes communion.

And if they make that point to people like my aunt and other congregants who feel very bereft, I think that could go a long way. It's not happening just yet, but it seems like the conversations about - what do we need to do to protect people who are attending church? These are the conversations that are getting louder and louder. So at some point, I guess, the church has to hear that.

And I think, you know, communion wine - you can, you know, just buy it at the supermarket and take a little taste at home while you're livestreaming the service. It's not exactly the same because a priest hasn't blessed it, but I've actually thought about going over and giving some to my aunt so she can feel better. I'm not sure she'd let - she'd actually let me do it because she knows I'm not a regular churchgoer (laughter), but I think...


KAKISSIS: ...That she would appreciate the gesture because right now she feels so cut off from something that makes her feel so grounded and so at peace and so very much a part of this country.

WARNER: Joanna, thank you. I really appreciate the conversation.

KAKISSIS: You are welcome. It was nice talking to you, Gregory.

WARNER: In all these three countries - in China, Germany and Greece - the coronavirus and the government response to it has people asking deep questions about who their society is and what they maybe need to change. But these conversations are happening all over the world, and they're also happening inside our own homes and in our own families.

I'm just going to end with a personal story. My family has been doing social distancing for a week now, which is not very long, and it surprises me how quickly my own children have adjusted. My 9-year-old now does all his lessons online. He meets with no one except through a screen. My daughter, who is 4 years old, asked me the other night for a meeting with her grandma. She meant a telemeeting (ph) online. Her grandmother lives 20 minutes away.

And I am absolutely proud of how they are coping with this, and it's all really affirming that they are adjusting. And thanks, also, to their teachers, who've done a great job, and, of course, to my parents and my wife's parents for learning to teleconference. But there is another part of me that does not want them to adjust to this so easily, that feels like this is not what we should get used to. And I am a little bit rattled that they might start to see this life as normal.


WARNER: So what about you? I would love to hear what this crisis has revealed about your relationships. And what are the conversations that you're having or wish you were having in your circles? You can drop us an email at or tweet us @Roughly.

This episode was produced by Aviva DeKornfeld and myself, edited by Hillary Frank - additional help from Jess Jiang, Autumn Barnes, Derek Arthur and Sana Krasikov. Thanks to International Desk editor Didrik Schanche, Larry Kaplow and the entire International Desk team. John Ellis composed our theme music. Isaac Rodrigues mastered the episode. Erin Register is our project manager. Neal Carruth, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann sit upon our high council. I'm Gregory Warner, back again soon with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.


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