President-elect Joe Biden has said he will ask all Americans to wear masks for the first 100 days after he takes office, hoping for a “significant reduction” in the rate of infections. Perhaps the most devastating tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic is that the exponential growth in new infections was predicted and entirely preventable. If public health methods were enforced earlier, the loss of life from Covid-19 could have been mitigated. But that would require something foreign to mainstream American culture: a sense of communality and concern for the most vulnerable amongst us.
Rugged individualism is the antipathy of public health, and it’s killing us. But we can perform one simple act in unison for the first 100 days of the Biden presidency that can change the trajectory of this pandemic.
The U.S. prides itself on individual rights and responsibilities. The individualistic nature of U.S. culture leads to decisions that directly conflict with public health recommendations to combat the spread of Covid-19. But decisions based on one’s “personal freedom” to not wear a mask or social distance places communities of color, who are often frontline and low-wage earners, at a disproportionate risk for contracting and dying of Covid-19.
The aversion to “big government” and distorted sense of personal liberties challenges one of public health’s most basic strategies, contact tracing, which has proven to be critical in controlling the epidemic. If epidemiologists can’t trace the source of Covid-19 transmissions and inform others of possible risks, the consequences will be more deaths. The recent high-volume travel during the Thanksgiving holiday further demonstrates people’s sense of invincibility, distrust of science, or simple unwillingness to delay gratification, despite the risk to themselves and others. While Americans have pushed back against government oversight that they see as an infringement on their personal freedoms, many of our counterparts in more collectivist/communal cultures including some African, Asian, and Latin American countries, have managed to get the Covid-19 pandemic under better control, largely due to adherence to government mandates.
But some of the greatest strides our nation has made have been because of the collective efforts of a group of citizens. Traditionally, marginalized and disenfranchised communities, including Black, Brown, Indigenous, Queer, Immigrant, and Disability communities, have had to exercise collective responsibility for our survival. The Civil Rights Movement illuminates the power of collective impact, as seen in the Montgomery bus boycotts and freedom rides. These mass protests and acts of civil disobedience during the Civil Rights Movement helped to get policies such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ratified. The HIV/AIDS epidemic also activated the LGBTQIA+ community and galvanized access to HIV treatments and, later, gay rights. The Black Lives Matter Movement has shown us how an issue that on the surface impacts one group impacts the whole. The Covid-19 Pandemic can also show us the power and impact of collective work and responsibility.
President-Elect Biden’s request for every American to wear a mask is reasonable. Still, it will require tapping into the communal spirit that is often dormant. The mask mandate will work, but local, state, and national elected officials – some of whom have been part of the problem – will have to cooperate to support the non-partisan mission. The Biden-Harris administration provides an opportunity for a hard reset, a chance to step toward firmer ideals of democracy that, though spun to be an isolated exercise, are really communal and compassionate acts of love for humanity. This is hard work, but we can do it. Americans have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but one must ask themselves, what impact are my behaviors having on others? Are my self-serving liberties stifling the rights of others?
The self-interest embedded in American culture is incompatible with a crisis like the Covid-19 Pandemic; removing the virus’ threat as quickly as possible depends entirely on every person’s choice to practice public health recommendations, as a collective. We are now seeing the devastating consequences of what happens when American culture shuns the idea of collectivism and community as a whole, and how individual actions can prevent others from accessing healthy choices. The anticipated post-Thanksgiving Covid-19 surge has resulted in a 20% increase in new cases, 21% increase in hospitalizations, and 39% increase in deaths. Even with the approval of the vaccine, we must continue to engage in good public health practices that protect one another.
America is often described as the ‘Great Experiment,’ and we are currently failing our latest stress test. We need an epistemic shift that emphasizes the “we” described in the U.S. Constitution. Individualism has been the foundation of hegemonic American culture for several centuries; however, new challenges require new solutions, and now is the time to link arms and face this pandemic together as one nation with liberty and justice for all.
“If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb
Sinead Younge, PhD is a community psychologist, Danforth Endowed Professor of Psychology at Morehouse College and a Public Voices Fellow at the OpEd Project. This article is a fellowship collaboration.