Thank God, I thought, as the aromatic plate made its way closer and closer to my table. I tore off the mask I’d been wearing since entering the dimly lit restaurant, noting the lip gloss imprint on the inside. Yup, that’s going in the trash once I get home.
The double-masked waitress placed our dishes in the middle of the table as my friends and I whipped out our cameras for the classic brunch Snapchat. As I navigated my phone, a notification popped up: “1,500 new cases of COVID-19 today, the third consecutive day of rising cases in the state of Michigan.” I stared at it until the notification disappeared from my screen, then looked around me. One couple 10 feet away, another a little closer — man, why couldn’t they seat us outside?
The pandemic made dispersed and speedy features in our discussion — the “when’s that vaccine coming,” the go-to “this is all so crazy”, the slightly bitter “at colleges they’re completely business as usual.” Just like the weather, COVID-19 has become the automatic default for any awkward silences — “the nasal swab barely hurt” joining “it’s cold outside” in the reservoir of small talk go-tos. As America sees little to no veritable progress in stifling the virus, those of us privileged enough to do so have mentally conquered COVID-19: all by the process of externalization. To an extent, this process definitely makes sense — our local, state and federal government make or break community responses to the virus, with implementations (or lack thereof) of various regulations and mandates. However, at the same time, the actions of an individual quite literally initiate a domino effect. We all know COVID-19 spreads like wildfire, with no definitive rhyme or reason — arguably every single time we go outside, there is a risk. Yet still, we’ve created parameters for our own peace of mind: outside or bust, gatherings of 25 or less (because the virus makes a U-turn once there’s no 26th), and intermittent hand sanitizing.
These measures are valuable, and without them we would definitely have less public safety than we do now, but this middle-ground approach has left us to dwell in an indefinite sort of purgatory with no visible end in sight. While New Zealand and Taiwan are essentially ‘back to normal,’ we look to them with envy without realizing the stringent measures they mandated to get to that place. For some, mask wearing is viewed as a form of groupthink, another way the government is trying to demand conformity. As such, mesh net masks have popped up to stick it to the man (yeah!) and let onlookers know that you may have been duped, but they haven’t. If beating the pandemic is striving for a light at the end of a tunnel, we’re currently navigating the same tunnel instead with random, small flickers of a candle, the extinguishing of which brings us all the way back to the tunnel’s entrance.
Was this just the luck of the draw for Americans? Is it just the vastness of our country that made the pandemic more widespread here? As a nation consistently purported as the ‘best in the world,’ our response to COVID was anything but. And interestingly enough, that may have to do with the ego we all carry as Americans- individualism at all costs. According to a recent study published by the Social Science Research Network, higher rates of local individualism reduced adherence to state lockdown orders by 41 percent and pandemic-based fundraising by 48 percent. Interestingly, areas of the country that have higher historical exposure to frontier conditions have empirically been proven to partake less in mask-use, social distancing and trust of science. This mindset is ingrained as an American value from our earliest lessons in elementary school and clearly display long-term implications: On one end, individualism encourages innovation and entrepreneurship, but on the other, it stifles any sense of social responsibility and collective action, characteristics needed in a pandemic-stricken country.
As such, here we are today — amid the indefinite slug of COVID purgatory. Ironically enough, many students have been forced to think collectively in light of universities’ individualistic approaches. I’ve heard stories of some having to exaggerate symptoms just to get tested, others renting AirBNBs so they can quarantine from their roommates, and many like myself, opting to stay home this semester to — among other things — avoid getting roped into an unused lease. When everything in our country seemingly operates like a business, the aforementioned mindset has permeated into a lot of our institutions, putting individual (oftentimes profit-based) interests over serving communities. As we head towards what may very well be the second spike of COVID-19, I propose a reframing of the Great American Individualism: Instead of considering it as the pursuit of singular enjoyment at all costs, we pursue our singular safety in the face of an unending pandemic. To this end, be self-interested enough to say no if you’re not comfortable attending an event, eating indoors or even entering maskless settings simply and only because you’re protecting yourself from the virus’s reach. When our government, our schools, and even ourselves may not immediately perceive those as primary concerns, consideration of the virus must be ingrained in our individual mindsets: we — myself and my homegirls at brunch included — need to confront the cognitive dissonance of dissociating our responsibility in the fight against the coronavirus when quite literally we are potential vectors.