A calendar without a month on it with the coronavirus symbol on every day with two surgical masks next to it

State of Disunion

American Individualism Is Killing Us

If only we regarded one another as kin instead of a society focused on ourselves, we would have the ability to stop, or at least slow down this pandemic. Will we ever learn?

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One of the most profound tragedies in the ongoing pandemic—beyond even the unfathomable loss of life, the ocean of grief we studiously attempt to ignore, the interminable challenge of trying to endure the unendurable—is that this year, 2021, we could have escaped this if we had wanted it enough. The late months of 2020 gave us vaccines, the industrial capacity to manufacture enough to bring us to herd immunity, and the incoming leadership of a federal executive with the will and the knowledge to activate both. In response, the early going of 2021 gave us widespread denial of vaccines’ lifesaving effectiveness, the self-interested corporate rejection of patent waivers, and a political backlash so furious and violent that it nearly overthrew the duly-elected government. And as the tremendous collective efforts of thousands of brilliant scientists, pharmaceutical manufacturing workers, logistics managers, health-care administrators and practitioners handed us a key to unlock the prison of the pandemic, we threw it away because we would rather die than share.

Crisis after crisis, development after development, the coronavirus pandemic has tested our willingness to engage in shared sacrifice and mutual aid, and found every last system wanting. The early shutdowns were necessary to slow the spread of the virus, but we made few efforts to sustain the small businesses responsible for half of the country’s employment, and thought even less of the millions of individuals left to fend for themselves. Mask-wearing and mitigation efforts remain essential to limiting the chances of the virus to mutate faster than we can vaccinate against it, so we have people breathing on others as a political statement. In less than a year, we received an efficacious vaccine against a virus that has killed more than 5 million people globally—and the U.S. is still trying to convince one quarter of its population to get the first shot, including members of Congress.

We have rejected all efforts to recognize ourselves as a society of interlocking systems and peoples, and in doing so have fed every strain of the virus and every subsequent sacrifice it demands. We have normalized a thousand deaths a day into background noise; we have dragged our feet on sharing vaccines across borders if it will cost our titans of industry another penny; we have surrendered nearly all collective understanding of the pandemic as a public health crisis and thus have lost the strategy to contain it. In a kind of brutal simplicity, the pandemic has asked if we are a nation, and we have answered that we are individuals assembled under a flag.  

In the U.S., individualism is as much fact as myth, made real with the simple adherence to believing it true. We are not messy and overlapping communities, woven together in an ecosystem that must sustain everyone; we are learning pods and homeowners’ associations, corporate boards and parent committees. Our homes are protected by the Castle Doctrine; our schools are funded by proximity. We are a set of titles and powers, rights without the responsibilities. We are trained in every way to only care as far as we know, and so the pandemic persists because we are aggressively ignorant.

Thus it has been before and again, in a country that banished state-enforced segregation when the current president was a college student. We have chosen to cleave our realities apart and the humanity therein to maintain the illusion that we are not a tangled mass of millions of lives, interconnected under the framework of state and nation. Each break is supposed to make us a little more alien, a little more abstract. Subsumed in the bubble of our own experience, we have little need to consider collective solutions to societal problems because other people aren’t even real. We have politicians and pundits who struggle to conceive of desperately needing more than $2,000 to survive a nearly apocalyptic year, while others still insist that COVID is a hoax as health-care workers endure physical and mental breakdowns from the effects of mass death. We are unwilling to hear pleas of help and desperation, unwilling to see the costs of our selfish systems, unwilling to call each other kin.

It is who we have refused to be, replicated over hundreds of years and millions of interactions, telling some that they are born to self-indulge and others that they must self-inure. We say that they are not like us, that they don’t share our worries or struggles, that they are a threat to our way of life. We pretend that the violence of this sentiment and our attachment to individualism are products of a time or a place, but COVID, like every calamity before it, demonstrates the fragility of that lie. Eventually too these months and years of suffering through the pandemic and the thousands of deaths it produced will become another atrocity that we will try to outrun by murdering the memory, as if we did not endure the truth, as if we are not bound by blood.

It is that blood which is shed and shared that was denied by slave-owning fathers, rejected for transfusion and donation, sent running along concrete sidewalks after another attack on a newcomer. It is the blood that we send in an emergency, that we tamp down with tourniquets, that we inject with live-saving medicine. It is the blood of a nation that birthed itself from an idea rather than an inheritance, and has rebirthed itself again and again, in response to circumstances that demanded our transformation.

Here we are at the precipice of another such renaissance. We have denied this choice from fear or petulance, from selfishness or shame, but we are, frankly, running out of time. It is late in a crisis that has consumed us at the cost of more than three-quarters of a million lives. Many of us are broken and heartsick from grief, more still, newly disabled or despairing from deprivation. There is a new variant of the virus ready to rampage through our society, to take us from our loved ones, to force us to sacrifice our health and safety. We are in need of a country that sees this collective plight as worth the investment and attention to fix rather than a problem of individual weakness. We need not be bound by the limitations of ancestry nor the lie of individualism: we simply have to want it enough, and make each other kin by choice.

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