Does American culture make succumbing to COVID-19 inevitable for the U.S.?
Throughout American history, the nation’s culture and mainstream ideologies have undergone significant changes, but one sentiment that has stood the test of time is the concept of the American Dream. This dream states that we can achieve anything we want if we work hard enough. Through this concept, society has been convinced that, as individuals, our fate is completely dictated by our own choices. And as a result, we have learned to see the actions and outcomes of our lives as entirely separate from that of other people’s, completely disregarding the societal and communal factors that can affect one’s livelihood.
Fast forward to the present day, where we are now being told about how one individual’s cough or breath could start a chain reaction of coronavirus infections that could eventually take someone’s life. Living in the midst of a pandemic has proven how our lives are interconnected with everyone we come into contact with, strangers and loved ones alike. In response, many public health officials and politicians have been encouraging and requiring the country to follow guidelines such as wearing masks that pass the flame test and social distancing. Though these guidelines promote the well-being of those who follow them, they have been primarily regarded as actions that are necessary for the safety of those we cross paths with. The expectation that people will see the health of others as their responsibility, and continuously sacrifice for the sake of those they don’t know completely opposes America’s individualistic value system. With this being the case, it is only fair to ask: is this country willing to abandon its cultural roots in order to promote the livelihood of its people?
The observable answer is no. This has shown to be the case in recent weeks, where the start of the fall school semester at the University of Michigan has brought on an influx of large gatherings, creating potential breeding grounds for COVID cases. This result is unsurprising considering what we know about the nature of the disease.
“COVID is a very social disease,” said Gary Harper, a health behavior and health education professor within the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. “It spreads through the air. So if you have students who are drinking, laughing, and singing, plus they’re drunk so their inhibitions are down, that’s a virus’ playground.”
With the virus’ ability to thrive in tightly-packed spaces, many have been questioning the logic behind people willingly and unnecessarily creating situations that allow this fatal virus to spread. The answer could lie within our culture.
According to the unwritten rules of an individualistic culture, people are only going to continuously follow guidelines that show visible benefits to themselves and their livelihood. Social psychologists have attested that people within individualistic cultures are more prone to making decisions based on individual needs, and only feel responsible for taking care of themselves and their families. This norm makes the discrepancy between the identities of people participating in these large maskless events and the communities being overwhelmingly impacted by COVID-19 extremely relevant. The demographics of the gatherings in question are mainly young, middle to upper-class white university students. This population of people is known to be the least impacted by the dangers of the virus .
Some believe that this causes this population to be disconnected from the reality of the disease. “These aren’t the people being disproportionately impacted by the disease,” says Dr. Harper about this disconnect. The racial disparities when it comes to the impact of COVID have been acknowledged at both the local level and the national level. “When the virus hit Michigan, specifically in Detroit, 60% of the people who tested positive were Black,” continues Harper. In the United States overall, Latino and African-American residents are three times more likely to become infected, compared to their white neighbors.
And yet race is not the only thing that separates these partiers from the reality of COVID. There is also their age to consider.
“Even when it comes to age, the majority of the people who are dying from it are older. With all of these partiers being young, if they catch the virus, they are very likely to recover from it,” Harper said.
This acts as a further separation that Dr. Harper summarizes with a very telling statement: “COVID isn’t real to them.” Yet it is very real to many others, including people of color, older citizens, and lower-income residents, especially those serving in essential worker positions that do not provide paid time off nor proper personal protective equipment.
With the people leading these parties on campus being socially and geographically separated from the hotspots of the virus, as well as the communities most affected by it, there is likely to be an attitude of either indifference or ignorance among the attendees. Many might not believe that their actions have tangible repercussions, or they may be too disconnected from the impact to care. With the societally-promoted desire to care only about oneself, this leaves many of these students without a visible reason to care.
Since this is a problem that lies within the value system of this country, many of the proposed solutions are located there too. “We must change how we define ‘community' in this country,” says Dr. Harper. Harper, who has done HIV community work and research since 1985, and has worked extensively in Kenya for the past 15 years, looks to the collectivism mindset of the East African country when proposing a solution.
“In Kenya, there is a very collectivist mindset,” Harper said.“They had curfews almost immediately. Now they’re kicking COVID’s butt instead of COVID-19 kicking their butts. There, the mindset is that if one person has COVID-19 the whole community has COVID. The saying ‘it takes a village’ isn’t just a cute saying there. It’s how they live.” The mindset that one person getting COVID is equivalent to the entire community getting COVID is not as far-fetched as it may appear. The easy mobility of infectious disease makes the potential of an individual case turning into a community concern quite possible. Because of this, the community-based mindset that has been ingrained into Kenyan society is what has resulted in relatively lower proportions of deaths compared to the U.S. Given these outcomes, it is very possible that normalizing the idea of being a team player - as elementary as it sounds - could be a saving grace to American.
This may not be easy to do. The United States is the same country that has allowed its individualistic values to prevent it from providing their citizens with universal healthcare. The pervading mindset that one should not be responsible for financially supporting the livelihood of a stranger is the reason why millions in this country have neglected health needs due to economic strain. It is also the reason why tax-supported healthcare programs like Medicaid remain under constant scrutiny. The ability of this country to redefine its values to encourage a lifestyle that considers and cares for the national community continues to be an uphill battle. The question of whether the ravaging impacts of COVID will change that is yet to be determined.