Hubris, Chutzpah and the United States : Covid-19 and treading the thin ice of American Individualism

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The world watches in stupefaction as the numbers of those infected and dead in the US has continued to grow at an alarming rate.  The superpower is on its knees.

A pandemic that has cost it millions of jobs and unheard of breadlines that stretch for miles. The first world wonder that spearheaded the world’s green revolution, whose farmers “feed the world,” according to a US government claim (2019), does not have a policy in place to feed its own people in crises like these. Instead, its own farmers are destroying food because they are unable to sell to restaurants and other outlets.

It is not just the world’s greatest country, it has the world’s greatest city also.

And this city too, which famously has welcomed the huddled masses of the world,  is laid low by the virus.

What happened that such a state of affairs came to pass?

The obsessive focus for some news outlets is of course the bungling, arrogant and unrepentant handling of the Covid-19 crisis by President Trump. As for the rest, the real economic impact of the pandemic seems to weigh heavily for most news outlets, with news here and there peppered with sketches of real-life cases – a Whole Foods worker, a nurse-practitioner, a bar-owner; ordinary folk overtaken by the coronavirus.

A good part of the blame for the early denial and dithering can be assigned to President Trump, definitely. His bull-doggish attitude and his uncanny ability to pick fights – whether with China or the WHO – is the stuff of legends.

But there is something else going on also, which could account for the state of affairs that has come to pass. It won’t do to just toss the blame on to a president you do not like. For that, Americans will have to look as much to themselves as to the state of the country. Americans will have to hold a mirror up to themselves.

In terms of the way the pandemic is viewed and engaged with, it has been  marked by, unfortunately, well known traits such as American Exceptionalism, American Individualism and American Conservatism (all overlapping probably). These  account for some of the cavalier attitude towards the pandemic – whether on part of the president or many of the citizens.

Not only has the stay-at-home and lockdown, if any, been implemented in varying and haphazard fashion, but also its compliance on behalf of the citizens has not been exemplary. And now there are the ‘Liberate’ chants from conservatives who wish “freedom” from whatever manner of social restrictions they have been under.

As Columbia University historian Eric Foner points out in his essay, The Idea of Freedom in American History, “The sense of American uniqueness, of the United States as an example to the rest of the world of the superiority of free institutions, remains alive and well even today as a central part of our political culture.”

Importantly, Foner shows that freedom as a concept has acquired an oppositional and negative connotation, almost in the shape of ‘freedom from’ –  “The dominant constellation of definitions [of freedom] seemed to consist of a series of negations – of government, of social responsibility, of a common public culture, of restraints on individual self-definition and consumer choice.”

Such attitudes combine and confuse notions of freedom, liberty, invincibility and triumphalism. They couch their ideas of freedom under the guise of anti-authoritarianism and anti-government to seek to express their own ideas of individual rights, personal space, and covert entitlement (“preserving the American Way of life”).

A blog piece by a doctor on the frontlines of the Covid-19 battle in New York hints towards the almost wilful attitude of defiance: “At the darkest hour of their livelihood, New Yorkers are suffering from these very same traits that propel them forward. Their incapability to be compliant. Their fiendish nature of playing freedom into the hands of liberty.”

A recent article in the Boston Globe titled Is it safe to run outside during the coronavirus pandemic?, was accompanied by images from parts of Boston where people were running, walking, rollerblading – all in fairly close proximity to each other, most of them not wearing masks.

Readers’ comments on the question posed in the title of the article have been mocking in tone – “What is your chance of getting the virus while passing someone? Does turning your head away from someone you are passing help? If you run solo and hardly see someone do you need a mask?”

It is this extreme understanding of one-sided, untrammeled freedom that has informed gun-ownership in the US, among other things. Despite several liberals gnashing their teeth as school shootings have continued unabated, the individual rights arguments trotted out each time to justify gun ownership always seem to justify their unfortunate effects.

A lot of the head-in-sand attitude of ignoring the effects of the virus around them is also because many people do not see the tragedy as it plays out in African-American neighborhoods.

The nature of America’s geographical divides, with the more distressed parts in every major city considered out-of-bounds for the more affluent residents, has much to do with this invisibilizing – and overlooking the intensity of the epidemic. Much has been written on how it is the African-Americans who have been bearing the brunt of the virus’s effects.

This is a country that shields itself from a wide-variety of mostly fictitious ‘others’ and enemies, from anticipated attacks by aliens to being overrun by immigrants. Yet, in the face of a real pandemic, there are millions who are chafing at the bit and offering artificial arguments to trivialize the pandemic and also demonstrate an uncalled-for streak of individualism.

Despite the instances of several rosily optimistic pieces on the new sense of caring for one’s fellow being engendered by the pandemic, it seems a good chunk of people in the US wish for their individual entitlements to override communitarian concerns.

For once, given the global nature of the pandemic, and also its intensifying pan-US nature, people could think less of their minor discomforts, such as not being able to go for a run as they wish, and pay heed to the reliable and considered advice of medical experts, so that we all come out of it as soon as possible.

Umang Kumar is a socially conscious writer living in the National Capital Region of Delhi, India.




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