Skip to main content

The Individual and the Collective

Eline N. Lincklaen Arriens

Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not represent the views of the Support Centre for Data Sharing or the European Commission.


Since COVID-19 has turned into a pandemic, countries around the world have been utilising and sharing data to gain insights into the spread of the disease, to help leaders curb, and flatten the spread of the virus. The type of measures and guidelines adopted and the approach followed to achieve these differ.

This is part one of a two-part series. This first part looks at the individual vs collective mentality in societies and how it impacts COVID-19 responses. The second part observes how this mentality has impacted national responses and data sharing during the pandemic with examples from countries in the West and in the East.   

Individualism vs. Collectivism

Several months ago, I discussed the dichotomy between the “us” vs. “them”1 – a distinction that was created during colonialism when Western countries were imposing their rule and mannerism in countries in the East. This conversation on the dichotomy in the “West” and the “East” (or West vs. East) is long and still ongoing and has impacts on societies’ behaviour, sense of self and notion of privacy,2 for example. From a sociological perspective, this mentality can be summarised as Western individualism vs. Eastern collectivism.3

Broadly speaking, and to provide more context, Westerners tend to look at themselves as unique individuals that stand out for their own achievements and are very protective of what they value, such as freedom and their personal data. In addition, they focus on their own well-being and rights and do not always seek out help from within their communities. On the other hand, countries that are shaped under the influence of the Eastern culture tend to be more collective where they do not view an individual as a unique entity, but as a small part of a society and a bigger picture. Following this mentality, they are likelier to ask and help one another for the group to succeed by, for example, adapting their schedule for others or by sharing their resources and information.

This difference in mentality is visible in the actions taken by different governments during the pandemic.

COVID-19 responses

In this pandemic, the decisions that leaders make will shape the world for years to come.4 How we are responding to COVID-19, the speed and time we are taking to act, and the decisions we are making and enforcing during this medical alert, will help form society’s new sense and experience of normal in the aftermath of the virus.5 Zooming in to a public health perspective, to combat COVID-19, officials in countries across the world are taking action to:

  1. Build awareness on the virus;
  2. Set guidelines for health professionals and civilians to stay safe and healthy;
  3. Target infection clusters and impose quarantine;
  4. Limit population movement and encourage the practice of social distancing; and
  5. Allocate scarce resources to those who need it, such as medical masks and protective gear to health care workers.6

To make these decisions, we need access to the right (and good quality!) data. For leaders and decision makers to proceed, we need insights into research on the virus, preventive actions, population sizer and mobility, the spread of the virus and healthcare capacity and resources, for example. As COVID-19 has spread, more and more stakeholders (government bodies, businesses and private individuals alike) are sharing and opening data to support decision makers in introducing and enforcing measures to reduce the spread. For example, sharing supply data on the number of available beds in hospitals or the supply of certain goods7 and opening data on confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection in different regions.8 National efforts to do this have been affected by concerns, or lack thereof, around privacy.

Notion of Privacy

The degree of action taken to mitigate COVID-19 has differed in the West and the East. A reason for this is privacy. As I discussed in my earlier piece about the dichotomy between “us” vs. “them”, individuals in the East are keener to sacrifice their privacy than those in the West.9 Put differently, Westerners are unwilling to give up information about themselves that they are in control of if they can help it. Conversely, and very generally speaking, citizens in the East are more likely to dismiss concerns about privacy for what they perceive as the common good.

How does this translate to action during the COVID-19 pandemic? As the pandemic has spread, countries in the West have been more cautious and protective of their privacy and are less likely to share or use potentially personal data to create services that can mitigate the spread of the virus. In the past months, more institutions have begun sharing data (i.e. health data, geodata, population data) and with it, there has been an increase in privacy concerns and pressure to update and uphold privacy protection in the US and Europe.10 In Eastern nations, there are little to no concerns around privacy nor resistance to government bodies amassing any kind of information was deemed necessary towards creating tools (such as applications) for the collective good. Instead, measures were swiftly taken after the pandemic was acknowledged and kept escalating with little conversation on issues around privacy and security. In the follow up of this article, I will provide several examples of national action during the COVID-19 pandemic. As countries around the world enter the second phase of the pandemic, the time period after the curve has been flattened and restrictions are being lifted, it will be interesting to observe the measures being taken in these different nations to continue mitigating the virus and the long-term effects the pandemic has had on citizens’ notion of data and privacy.

Before closing, I want to highlight that this piece in no way condemns individualistic or collective thinking. They both have their merits and I grew up appreciating the strength and necessity of both with a parent from each side. What I want to highlight is that these differences in mentality do shape (re-)actions and conversations, with or without a global emergency. Individualism is vital for analysis and to introduce new rules that lead to tolerance and respect in a homogenous society. For data sharing to advance and benefit citizens in Europe (and beyond), we need individualistic thoughts to safeguard our security and guarantee that our rights are protected and respected. Collectivism is key for big structural changes that require teamwork, unity, supporting one another, and aligning in terms of development. Through quick and collaborative action, we can see what is possible and realise the advantages of sharing information between institutions at a rapid pace that benefits people across the board. These two sides can, and right now do, work together for the good of everyone.