Individualism in the United States through the lens of SARS-CoV-2 defines freedom as “freedom to not wear a mask,” as opposed to “freedom from getting sick.”
Since I was a young girl, whenever I felt remotely ill I was told to “suck it up,” get out of bed, go to school, socialize and learn. This attitude is rooted in the American belief that “sickness is a weakness;” sickness is an attitude. To many in America, to take the day off for illness implies you are not hard-working and are replaceable.
Additionally, policies set forth by some companies and schools make it difficult to take sick days. For instance, in some schools, students are required to provide a doctor’s note to prove that they were actually sick. Not only does this reinforce the narrative that people lie about sickness but it also requires children to have health insurance, which, in the U.S., is not considered a universal human right. Someone’s socioeconomic status should not determine whether their sickness is considered “real.” Furthermore, some employers limit the number of paid sick days making it difficult for some people to take off. You should not have to choose between personal health and making money.
American culture has deep roots tied to individualism, which can be understood in the reflection of American values. “Self-motivation, self-choice and self-reliance” are key principles. American individualism is neither universally good nor bad. However, its defects are more relevant today than ever.
Many recognize that this American mentality is flawed, however, not in the ways that relate to our current, international crisis. Individualism has led the U.S. down a path that is not only selfish but deadly. Because of our self-interested mindset, if COVID-19 does not directly and negatively impact someone (i.e. harming the ones we love), then it does not apply to the individual. Too many of us continue to disregard CDC guidelines and restrictions simply when we feel like it and this is reflected in the increasing number of cases.
SARS-CoV-2 was not destined to be a pandemic. For example, South Korea and New Zealand have better controlled the virus, keeping it at a Level 3 (the U.S. is at a Level 4). This success is not only due to those in power but also to their own cultural values.
When analyzing the cultures of certain East Asian countries, several differences stand out. For instance, when people are sick and during the cold and flu season, many East Asian cultures, including South Korea, use mask-wearing. What is considered a threat to freedom by some Americans is a preventive action and community obligation in this example. This, along with many other cultural differences, is insightful in understanding their ability to contain the virus.
These differences are deeply seeded in the values of a culture. However, there is hope for the U.S. and other individualistic cultures in recognizing and adopting these community-centered approaches. Our mindset needs to be revolutionized with the help of federal and local assistance: mandating masks, passing another stimulus package, contact tracing, etc… However, these measures will be unsuccessful unless everyone participates for the good of a community.
While I know that we are looking for a fix-all solution to end this pandemic, I think it is much more complicated than that. American culture, especially white, dominant culture, needs to revolutionize its values. Handling this pandemic with an individualist mindset is clearly not the answer. For us to get through this, we need to adopt more communal values that will directly conflict with the dominant values in the United States. There is no vaccine for ceasing the spread of individualism, which in terms of this pandemic, is deadly.
Noto, a 2017 Cooperstown Central School graduate, is a senior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. She wrote this as part of a biology course about infectious diseases and global change.