Rice farming is hard. It’s complicated. Traditional rice farming takes twice the amount of labor as crops like wheat, corn and potatoes. Paddy rice was built on irrigation networks that forced farmers to cooperate with each other. Rain falls on the fields of both rogue and cooperative wheat farmers, but irrigation networks flood paddy fields only if farmers work together to build them and manage to keep them working. In short, rice required a lot more social coordination compared with crops such as wheat, which the West was built on.

Rice farming might seem far removed from the COVID-19 pandemic. But research from my lab finds that some of the cultural traits of rice-farming communities are more important for handling pandemics than hard assets like health care dollars and hospital beds. Cultural traits around social norms and relationship networks can explain why rice-growing nations, including some of the world’s poorest, suffered death rates that were 3 percent those of non-rice-growing nations, including some of the world’s wealthiest. This theory suggests that, when the next highly transmissible infectious disease emerges, if everyone thinks like a rice farmer, rather than a wheat farmer, we could save millions of lives.

In the early days of COVID, China, Vietnam and South Korea were clear standouts in infection control. At the time, some observers suggested that the collectivistic culture of some East Asian countries meant that they were more likely to wear masks and more likely to comply with stay-at-home orders. As someone who researches the historical roots of culture, I noticed that these star performers were cultures with a deep history of rice farming. From my earlier research, we know that rice-farming societies around the world tend to share particular cultural traits. I wondered if those traits could help explain their outperformance.

Rice Cultures Have Closed Social Networks

One trait that rice-farming cultures tend to have is low relational mobility. Cultures low in relational mobility tend to have closed social networks, and they report having met fewer new acquaintances in the last 30 days. A study of 39 countries found that the U.S., the U.K. and Mexico have lots of relational mobility, whereas rice-farming cultures such as Malaysia and Taiwan are less mobile. Famously introverted Japan came in last in relational mobility.

These fixed relationships make sense with the work of traditional rice villages. Rice farmers put in twice the number of hours in their fields as do wheat farmers. To deal with this backbreaking labor, rice farmers rely heavily on extended family and neighbors.

This labor sharing puts people in binding relationships. It’s similar to how paying for a friend’s coffee today sets them up to pay for your coffee tomorrow. This interdependence helps cement relationships over time.

Norms Help Manage Irrigation and Pandemics

Rice cultures also tend to share tight social norms. In cultures with tight social norms, people feel more constricted in what they can do in public. For example, tight-laced Singapore is famous for its chewing gum ban. Rice-farming cultures such as Sri Lanka and Japan report tighter social norms than people in cultures such as the U.S., Netherlands and U.K.

These tight social norms show up in anthropologists’ accounts of rice villages. Social norms help rice farmers manage the irrigation networks they use to flood paddy fields. Maintaining the irrigation channels benefits all the farmers in the village, but no single farmer wants to be stuck with the massive burden of building it and dredging the channels every year. To make it work, rice villagers split up the work and make sure everyone contributes. For example, rice villagers in southern China set up work assignments, monitor who shows up, and punish villagers who fail to show up.

How do these cultural traits relate to COVID? My colleagues and I analyzed COVID cases and deaths from 132 countries around the world. We found that rice-farming cultures suffered just 3 percent of the deaths per capita of non-rice-farming nations. Low relational mobility and tight social norms both independently accounted for differences in COVID outcomes. And both cultural traits continued to explain COVID deaths and case counts after accounting for wealth and health care infrastructure.

Natural Experiment Rules Out Confounds

One alternative explanation is that nations with seemingly good COVID outcomes were just suppressing the numbers. For example, Turkmenistan was famous for reporting that it had no coronavirus cases over a year into the pandemic. Nations like the U.S. and U.K. did more testing and probably reported deaths more openly than countries with few resources or repressive governments.

That meant we had to take underreporting into account. We statistically controlled for coronavirus testing across countries. We also used estimates of underreported deaths from third-party researchers. Yet even after taking into account testing and transparency, the data showed that culture mattered.

East Asia is the classic rice basket, but rice-farming cultures outside of Asia also outperformed their neighbors. The African countries of Madagascar and Sierra Leone farm rice, and they outperformed nearby countries like Senegal and Zimbabwe, according to estimates from Our World in Data.

Another way to get at this question is to compare counties in southern and northern China. Southern China grows rice, and northern China grows wheat. Examining rice-wheat differences between nearby counties in China let us compare regions with the same national policies, ethnicity and religion, but different farming legacies.

We found wheat-farming regions reported three times more COVID cases than rice-farming regions. And just like the global findings, rice provinces of China have tighter social norms than wheat provinces, according to our own data.

First Mobility, Then Norms

The data also taught us that mobility and norms played different roles. Relational mobility hurt societies like France and Brazil most in the early days of the pandemic when the coronavirus hijacked people’s flexible social networks. But once cases spiked and hospitals filled up, even people in mobile cultures like the U.S. started to trim their social networks, as one study found.

Tight norms followed the opposite trajectory. Norms didn’t seem to matter in the first few months of the pandemic. But by September 2020, cultures with tight norms started to pull ahead of other cultures in case counts and deaths. It takes time for cultures to coalesce around norms for a new disease—an average of four months for COVID, according to one estimate.

The narrower relationship networks in rice-farming cultures like Korea gave the coronavirus a little less runway to build up speed early on. Then, the tight norms made it easier for rice cultures like Taiwan to enforce rules on masks and monitor whether people were following quarantine guidelines. Monitoring quarantine rules is not far from the cultural memory of monitoring work assignments in rice irrigation networks.

In contrast, cultures like the U.S. and the U.K. that were built on less-binding crops like wheat mostly refused to enforce rules. U.S. travelers ignored quarantine orders and talked about it openly with journalists. The BBC reported that 300,000 British travelers ignored quarantine rules. U.K. authorities said that enforcing mask rules should only be “a last resort.”

Why the Rankings Got It So Wrong

Culture can teach us why experts in preparedness got it so wrong. In October 2019, just before COVID struck, researchers at Johns Hopkins University ranked countries around the world on how prepared they were to handle pandemics. Wealthy countries like the U.S., U.K. and the Netherlands took the top three spots. Meanwhile, poorer countries like Sierra Leone, Madagascar and Vietnam ranked 50th or lower.

Two years later, the U.S., U.K. and the Netherlands were among the countries with the highest number of COVID cases and deaths per capita in the world. Madagascar, Vietnam and Sierra Leone all had fewer cases and deaths per capita than the global average.

The Johns Hopkins rankings focused on hard assets—things that are easy to count, such as accredited labs, government health care spending and hospital beds. Our analysis suggests that the rankings got it wrong because they ignored the “softer” assets of culture. Hard assets like dollars, labs and hospital beds matter. But we shouldn’t let the fact that beds are easier to count get in the way of accounting for culture. Sometimes culture is a matter of life or death.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.