Over the last few weeks, there has been widespread media attention and public debate over stimulus checks, campaign promises and the election. However, the recent resurgence in coronavirus cases across the country underscores that it’s not just public policy and party politics that determine the health of our nation. Successfully ending COVID-19 also depends on citizens following good public practices.
In the United States, however, a concerning number of people have avoided abiding by public health guidelines. In several states, people have rallied against mask-wearing requirements set by municipal governments, creating the infamous “anti masker.” In other cases, news outlets have reported instances of store customers refusing to wear masks and flashing firearms in protest. Elsewhere, demonstrators were seen with posters claiming: “Social distancing = communism.” These demonstrations all worry about government policy and personal freedoms but not about community health.
The origin of this lack of concern for the community goes way back. The trends are a long-standing American value: individualism.
Individualism has sown seeds in various aspects of life in the United States. In the economy, people are lauded for being self-reliant: Those who are successful are glorified, while those who struggle are blamed for their failures. In our culture, individualism also calls us to stand out from the crowd. With fashion, for example, we wear exploding colors and shapes that separate us from the mundane. However, when individualism becomes extreme, we lose sense of the crowd around us.
The strong emphasis on individuals often blinds us to our effects on the community. Decisions are made based on benefits and harms to oneself. In a health context, where lives are endangered, being overly focused on oneself can be dangerous.
This cultural support of individualism stands in stark contrast with the communalism seen in other places across the globe. In East Asia, one of the earliest regions to stabilize COVID-19, the community takes precedence over individuals. For example, China emphasizes this mentality, as embodied by a proverb: When the nest is overturned, no egg stays unbroken. In South Korea, parting from the norm often leads to ostracism. For example, a popular term among teenagers is “gwan-jong.” Roughly translated as “attention illness,” it is a derogatory label used to shame any behavior that stands out. And I’ve observed the same with street fashion. People abide by trends so much that it’s often hard to spot differences from one passerby to another. Certainly, an excess of cultural constraints can be restrictive and suffocating. However, in a heavily individualistic society like America, a tint of concern for the community can only help.
Over the next few days and months, the world will be focused on the outcome of the American election. However, during this time when the government is the center of attention, it is important to know that we, laypeople, still have a large impact on America’s health.
The urgency of COVID-19 calls for a new mentality. There is a need to think of wearing masks and washing hands as a duty to our community. It’s about keeping everyone, not just ourselves, healthy. The opposite is also true: It is not okay to stop wearing a mask because “we are willing to take the risk.” We should make decisions as if the health of our community was our burden.
CHRIS LEE is a first year in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.