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‘Personal Responsibility’ Won’t Save Us From a Pandemic

We're in this crisis because governments have abandoned us—not because of individual failure.

Photo: 7C0/Flickr

The United States racked up a million new COVID cases over the course of just six days last week. With the holidays coming up, the onslaught of infections doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon—a recent survey from Ohio State found that nearly four in 10 Americans are planning to attend a Thanksgiving with more than 10 people.

It’s easy to dunk on people who are blatantly and purposefully ignoring that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, selfishly putting workers and everyone they subsequently come into contact with at risk in order to eat and drink and shop indoors. I live in a mid-sized city, and every time I drive through a busy neighborhood on the weekend and see dozens of people waiting in line to drink at a club, many of them not wearing masks, it’s frustrating to me in a way few things are. I personally have not seen my parents since last Christmas, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that I likely won’t see them until there’s a vaccine readily available and all of us have taken it.

But the fact that the United States has 11 million coronavirus cases and counting is not due to a lack of personal responsibility and a surplus of selfishness. There are a lot of assholes out there who refuse to wear a mask, sure, but there is not something innate to the American identity that makes us incapable of controlling a pandemic. Rather, we’re seeing the end result of governments (and businesses) being willing to say that this a problem we have to take seriously, but being unwilling to do the things that actually show people that as a country, we’re far past the point we were at back in the spring.

Much of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of the Trump administration. Donald Trump prioritized the improvement of economic statistics (unemployment, GDP, the stonks) over public health so he could point to a major economic rebound just in time for his re-election, and began urging states to reopen and people to defy coronavirus restrictions just weeks after he shut down the country.

Trump set the tone by calling for reopening as quickly as possible, criticizing social distancing and mask requirements promoted by his own government, and turning the entire pandemic response into another front of this bullshit culture war that now defines American politics. GOP governors from Georgia to South Dakota took their cue from the leader of their party, and as a result many people in their states and beyond have died preventable deaths.

As things continued to get worse through the late summer and fall, mostly Republican governors stressed personal responsibility to get through the pandemic. But Democrats have joined in too, in hopes of avoiding another round of restrictions like we saw in the spring.

Taking this approach was always doomed to fail. It’s akin to telling people that climate change is getting worse because they aren’t biking to work, or that their healthcare costs are too expensive because they don’t eat enough kale. These are systemic problems that require systemic solutions, not all 331 million of us performing rugged individualism.

In lieu of more COVID relief that keeps people at home and the lights on at their workplaces, non-essential workers have been encouraged to go back in and risk their lives by engaging with dozens of coworkers and customers every day. Indoor shopping and dining has been open for months. The message might be that we’re still in a crisis, but the actions say we’re not, and that our roles as economic contributors eclipse our identity as human beings.

Maybe the most blatant example of this is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announcing that bars, restaurants, and gyms have to close indoor operations have to close at 10 p.m.—rather than, you know, closing those indoor operations altogether—but also issuing a ban on private gatherings of more than 10 people. The ban on large private gatherings at someone’s home is undermined by the fact that New York would let the same number of people gather in a restaurant, depending on localized indoor dining capacity restrictions.

Some states are finally starting to take more necessary steps, though it’s understandably still woefully short of the sort of national lockdown-plus-stimulus approach we saw in the spring, considering there’s no stimulus to speak of. Hopefully, more states get on board as soon as possible, because otherwise, what’s coming after Thanksgiving is going to be an absolute nightmare.