“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control.”
Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland
As COVID-19 ravages the United States with more than 213,000 cases, there’s another disease that’s killing us—a myth born of the romantics, Ralph Waldo Emerson, cowboy lore, and life on the frontier: I’m talking about the dark side of our individualism.
This immortal lie tells us that we’re free to believe what we want and that we can save ourselves if we just try hard enough. These unchecked assumptions have severely impaired our ability to coordinate a response to this pandemic.
While individualism is useful to promote creativity and innovation, there are several features of this quintessential American trait that have undermined our institutions, leadership, and citizen behavior during this unprecedented crisis. It has made this nation a more fertile ground for COVID-19 than more collectivist or communal countries.
How Individualism Has Failed American Institutions
I lived abroad for five years and I’ve been tracking various governments’ responses to COVID-19 with great interest. South Korea had its first confirmed case the same day as the United States: January 20, 2020. While the Trump administration called the virus a Democratic “hoax” and panicked for several weeks that it would threaten the economy during an election year, the South Korean government initiated an aggressive testing program to identify who needed to be put into isolation.
Two months later, the South Koreans have flattened the curve and life is slowly returning to normal. In the United States, COVID-19 is overwhelming hospitals in Seattle, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York City. And it’s just getting started.
Our Healthcare System
Our decentralized healthcare system is not equipped to fight for us during a pandemic. The main goal of American for-profit insurance companies and care facilities is to make money—and that objective does not align with the public interest, especially in this crisis.
Instead of having one clear-cut entity such as the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS), Americans are forced to navigate a complicated bureaucracy of “in-network” and “out-of-network” healthcare providers, arcane insurance billing practices, and sky-high co-pays with surprise costs. And millions of Americans remain uninsured, with millions more about to lose their employer-sponsored plans as the economy crashes.
This desultory system has created a lot of confusion and supply shortages. U.S. hospitals are running out of personal protective gear (PPE) and states have had to engage in eBay-style bidding wars to secure ventilators.
While some states such as Florida have gotten everything they asked for from the federal government within three days—N-95 masks, gowns, etc.—my state (Oregon) only received 10 percent of its request. The biggest difference between Florida and Oregon? Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is a Republican and Governor Kate Brown is a Democrat. It’s hard not to assume that the Trump administration is picking favorites when he’s more concerned about feeling “appreciated” than getting Americans the assistance they need.
If I wanted to get a COVID-19 test, there’s nowhere in my region to go. Public health officials in Lane County have said they’re advocating at the state and federal level for widespread testing, but they are still waiting. In theory, the cost of these tests is covered under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, but early American access seems to have been limited to government officials and celebrities.
If I needed to get COVID-19 treatment, it’s likely I would pay thousands of dollars with my high-deductible insurance plan.
Most American healthcare providers and leaders are telling people to simply stay home and wait out the disease, except in life-threatening situations. With refrigerated trucks serving as temporary morgues in New York City, it is clear that the for-profit American healthcare system has already been overwhelmed by this pandemic. Hospitals and states should not have to compete with one another for supplies.
“If I think it’s true, no matter why or how I think it’s true, then it’s true, and nobody can tell me otherwise”
Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland
The first step to fighting a pandemic is getting the correct information—and this is impossible in today’s hyper-partisan “choose-your-own-reality” media landscape.
Thirty years ago, there was an agreed-upon collective truth. Journalist Walter Cronkite Jr. was called “the most trusted man in America” and citizens believed him, regardless of their political affiliation. These days, even scientific facts—climate change, the effectiveness of vaccines, the importance of social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19—are treated as matters of opinion. By illustration, Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL), taking his cues from the White House, asked his state’s citizens to stay home only yesterday (April 1)—appallingly late considering their high population of vulnerable elderly folks.
According to a recent poll, viewers of Fox News are especially likely to believe that the threat of COVID-19 is “exaggerated.” The network, afraid of being sued, has already fired host Trish Regan, who called coronavirus a politically motivated “scam” on her March 9 broadcast.
Dr. Anthony Fauci—a man who has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since the year I was born—has been targeted by Trump loyalists. When Americans are free to select their own scientific facts—with Republicans eager to defend the economy and the president—it’s very difficult to mount a coordinated response to COVID-19.
How Our Selfish Leaders Have Failed Us
Right now, Americans have no trustworthy central authority to guide us through this pandemic. It feels as if half the country is listening to Dr. Anthony Fauci, and half the country is listening to the president.
But Donald Trump has shown time and time again that he’s a toxic individualist: he’s only concerned about himself. There is plenty of evidence for his tax fraud, theft from his own charitable foundation, and self-dealing while in office. He refuses to read intelligence briefings and spends much of his time watching Fox News or playing golf at his own properties at incredible expense to taxpayers—not to mention the multiple rape allegations and the general entitlement he feels to women’s bodies.
It is no surprise that Trump has failed his first real test as president. Instead of taking COVID-19 seriously, he dawdled and called it a Democratic “hoax.” He dragged his feet for weeks, downplaying concerns, comparing the disease to the flu, dispensing false medical advice about the usefulness of chloroquine (which killed one Arizona man), and appointing gay conversion therapy czar Mike Pence as the head of the COVID-19 task force.
The kicker? In an effort to save money following the massive GOP tax cut, Trump fired the U.S. pandemic response team in 2018. Oh, and I suspect he’s too proud to rely on the National Security Council’s pandemic playbook because it was created during the Obama administration.
To Donald Trump and congressmen like Sen. Richard Burr (NC-R), who sold millions of dollars of stock in anticipation of a crash, the health of the country was not their primary concern: they acted selfishly, saving themselves with little regard for their roles as elected officials. Leadership should be more than an exercise in ego and personal enrichment.
Finally, American values praise people who “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and by extension, often degrade people who need help—the most vulnerable among us. How many times in the past three years has the Republican Party tried to poke holes in our already-dismal social safety net by cutting food stamps, education funding, environmental protections, and Medicare? Needing help is somehow unAmerican—unless you’re a multibillion-dollar company in need of a taxpayer bailout, of course.
If individualism is serving American institutions so well, why does socialism/collectivism come around every decade or so to save our asses?
How Individualism Impairs the Behavior and Beliefs of American Citizens
Individualism can be beneficial when people choose to defy tyranny or mainstream bigotry, but there’s a dark side to assuming we are free to do and believe what we want. Consider the words of a now-infamous 21-year-old spring breaker:
“If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying. You know, I’ve been waiting, we’ve been waiting for Miami spring break for a while, about two months, we’ve had this trip planned, two, three months, and we’re just out here having a good time. Whatever happens, happens,” said Brady Sluder in mid-March.
I lived in Japan for two years and I can’t imagine a young Japanese person saying something like this because there’s a constant awareness of how one’s own actions impact others. Many Asian nations are already in the habit of wearing masks when they’re sick to protect others from infection. In the United States, whether you’re an ignorant young man like Sluder or the Governor of Oklahoma, we do whatever the fuck we want—everyone else be damned.
To fight this pandemic, we can’t choose our facts. It’s not a simple matter of opinion to believe Fox News when it claimed that COVID-19 was an exaggerated hoax led by “panic pushers.” Those hosts dispelled dangerous misinformation and it’s downright irresponsible to believe them.
We need to heed the scientists’ advice and take other people’s wellness into consideration. Americans who are going against “shelter in place” orders may be unwitting carriers of COVID-19, putting more vulnerable folks at risk.
The Opportunity of COVID-19
This isn’t the first time in history when we’ve been forced to come together to confront a common enemy. A person can’t conquer the frontier of this disease alone—and in order to beat COVID-19, we need to outgrow the dark side of our individualism.
In a 1935 fireside chat during the Great Depression, FDR stated, “The old reliance upon the free action of individual wills appears quite inadequate. The intervention of that organized control we call ‘government’ seems necessary.” The New Deal was in full swing, pushing financial reforms, putting citizens back to work on public projects all over the country. This coordinated action helped pave the way for our economic recovery in that uncertain era.
During the COVID-19 crisis, we need centralized logistics, which take care of the collective rather than individuals.
Furthermore, this is a global threat and I see an opportunity not only for Americans to become more communally oriented but also for our country to recognize its place in the world as one nation among many.
American exceptionalism has always been a childish myth—the fact is that we’re part of a global community and we need to work with other countries on an equal footing to mount a response to this pandemic. Our arrogance and self-righteousness have no place in the world, especially right now when we need to work together.
COVID-19 does not care if you’re Brazilian or Japanese—it treats everyone the same. The first individualist thought is: how is this going to affect me? The first collectivist thought is: how can I help others and ensure this disease doesn’t spread?
Only the second approach will give us a fighting chance.