The consequences of rugged individualism in a pandemic

October 29, 2020 12:02 am

A masked protester near the Virginia State Capitol during a “Reopen Virginia Rally” in Richmond, Va., April 22, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Americans can be a selfish lot. Not everybody, of course. But too many people couldn’t care less about taking the necessary steps to keep deaths and infections from COVID-19 at bay.

It’s not that hard: Stay at home as much as possible. Wear a mask out in public and in buildings. Wash your hands. Avoid situations where you can’t stay at least 6 feet apart. Treat workers with respect and deference who must come into contact with consumers. Limit the number of people at social gatherings.

Folks, none of these are Herculean tasks. We’re not being asked to climb mountains, mine for ore or donate a kidney just to survive.

Yet several months into this raging pandemic, the “me-first” mentality is readily apparent, in the commonwealth and elsewhere:

• The Virginia Department of Health issued a news release last week noting COVID-19 cases were surging in Norton city and Lee, Scott and Wise counties. “Keep in mind that your behavior can help protect yourself and others — or put you and them at increased risk,” said Dr. Sue Cantrell, a director of health districts in the area. (I tried to interview Cantrell about whether resistance to mask-wearing contributed to the numbers, but I couldn’t reach her.)

• A mid-October wedding at Wintergreen Resort forced several employees to quarantine because of possible exposure to COVID-19, an official said. Some staffers tested positive. Weddings are special, but shouldn’t couples limit the number of guests because of the times we’re in? Even then, you don’t know if all the well-wishers had recent tests confirming they were free of the virus.

Lynchburg General Hospital’s acute care facilities were “strained,” a top official said, because of an influx of coronavirus patients last week.

• Despite new restrictions imposed by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker prohibiting indoor dining in specific communities, a throng of customers showed up and packed a restaurant in defiance of the guidelines, the Chicago Tribune reported. The restaurant’s social media post said it was opening “out of survival and to help our staff pay their bills.” Yet Pritzker this week warned “there seems to be a COVID storm coming.”

The United States has proved the days of exceptionalism are over — unless you’re talking about leading everybody else with more than 226,000 deaths. By mid-October, the United States had the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, and officials said we’ve entered a third peak of cases in many states.

We don’t have a vaccine. So why is it so hard for Americans to do what medical experts advise to fight this thing?

University professors I interviewed and scholarly articles suggested several reasons: Partisanship, since many Republicans followed President Donald Trump’s lead in downplaying or even denying the coronavirus’ existence, and they resisted wearing masks. A rugged individualism — baked into the nation’s founding — over working for the common good. And pandemic fatigue, even as there’s no end in sight to the carnage.

“We are a country that values individualism, materialism and wealth over the well-being of our neighbors,” Tim Goler, assistant professor of sociology and urban affairs at Norfolk State University, told me. He’s one of the researchers overseeing a pandemic study of older adults.

Goler added that people are fed up with being at home, especially if they haven’t been directly affected by deaths or illnesses: “They’re willing to sacrifice people dying.” You saw indications of this even earlier this year, when protesters demanded states to reopen their economies — even as spikes of infections continued.

“The pandemic has exposed the extent to which we do not live in a ‘United States of America,’ ” said Ernestine Duncan, a psychology professor at NSU. She noted people in other nations have accepted strong restrictions on movements and behavior, and they’re faring better than the U.S.

Clearly, we’re an individualistic society, Duncan noted.

It made me wonder about the last time our sprawling, populous country really sacrificed as a whole for the common good. Historians might point to World War II, in which food, gasoline and clothes were rationed.

Officials and residents collected scrap metal and rubber for the war effort. Women entered defense plants to work because so many men had joined the military and people grew “Victory Gardens” in large numbers to supplement their meals.

The circumstances, though, aren’t totally analogous. Back then, Americans were forced into rationing because of governmental mandates; that hasn’t always been the case this time. Trump has hesitated to restrict the movements and actions of citizens in spite of the way the coronavirus is transmitted.

In the 21st century, our rugged, go-it-alone mentality has horrific consequences. We shouldn’t be surprised by the ever-rising COVID-19 death toll if we continue to be more concerned about individual comfort rather than our collective safety.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy — an awful one.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]