Mary Clare Rosemeyer By: Mary Clare Rosemeyer
Research Assistant - International Tobacco Control
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07 Jun 2020 : Consequences of American Individualism

Two weeks ago, I was writing about the politicization of Covid-19 and Americans taking to the streets to protest the violation of their individual rights imposed by “stay at home” and other Covid-19 safety measures. However, the global pandemic that has eclipsed virtually every other global issue since February 2020 disappeared from American focus on May 26th in the matter of 8 minutes and 46 seconds as Americans watched the horrific video footage of the May 25th murder of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers. With a tidal wave of Black Lives Matter and anti-police protests beginning on the evening of Tuesday May 26th, demanding the nation and world’s attention to the disturbing number of black men and women killed by the very police forces meant to protect them, the Covid-19 protests feel like a lifetime ago. As the country hit hardest in terms of infections and deaths from Covid-19, how will America adequately manage two deadly pandemics at once?

The WHO and CDC Covid-19 containment and recovery plans have depended heavily upon a collective mindset – asking people to follow these global guidelines for the greater good of family, community, and country. In more socialist leaning countries, Covid-19 safety measures have been widely abided by and supported with politics put aside. In the US, however, the collective mindset has never been a cultural norm. It goes against such fundamental American values of individualism that even a global pandemic deadlier for Americans than the Korean, Vietnam, Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq Wars combined hasn’t moved the collectivism needle with any notable significance. While the rest of the world has watched police and armed military forces face-off against predominately non-violent protesters, there is a rightful concern over what effect these historic mass-gatherings will have on the global progress against Covid-19 and the optimistic trajectory we were so recently on to reopening the world.

I am of the opinion that the re-energized Black Lives Matter movement is the catalyst for national unity that Americans so desperately wished for and expected Covid-19 to be. And ultimately, this social activism that has been exercised in all 50 US states is what will help us become better listeners and communicators – for these current medical and social pandemics and all that follow. Before the public’s awareness of the senseless murder of George Floyd, the news was flooded with predominantly right-leaning Americans storming state capitol buildings, bars, and outdoor public spaces without medical masks in “defense” of their individual rights and in defiance of “unconstitutional” public health safety measures. Since this new wave of anti-racism protests, photos and news footage from all across the country has shown us that millions of protesters of all ages and races are wearing medical masks and local NPOs and participants have been distributing hand sanitizer, clean masks, and bottled water to those in need. If Covid-19 is doomed to be a political issue in America, then wearing a mask has taken on even greater symbolic significance in the past week. Albeit perhaps a gross over-generalization, Americans’ opinions on Covid-19 no longer simply convey beliefs about protecting individual rights over community health, but rather a confirmation that if you’re still complaining about Covid-19 safety measures infringing upon your unalienable American rights then you’re unaware of the definition of privilege, and you are fighting the wrong fight.

So, where does this leave us?

The US has found itself in quite the predicament, battling two very different pandemics fueled by the same underlying source: American individualism. If asked two weeks ago if I thought there was anything we should be prioritizing over the ongoing health and economic repercussions of Covid-19, I would have adamantly answered “No.” Today, I think America must multi-task. Only as our death toll started to rapidly rise did we realize that Americans of color were being disproportionately infected and killed by this virus when compared to white Americans. We should know better by now that racial issues and public health issues do not exist in silos nor do they take turns. Black Lives Matter means just that - THEY MATTER – be it in our justice system or our health system. If we are to curb this pandemic and achieve better and more equitable health outcomes for ALL Americans, then America needs to reframe Covid-19 as an indicator of our poor human rights performance rather than a party line issue. 

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