Why Individuals and Structure Have to Work Together
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we hit some grim milestones. 200,000 positive COVID tests. Over 2,000 deaths. The highest number of people hospitalized since the pandemic began. The dark winter has certainly begun.
And, yet, that same week, we saw a dramatic uptick in the number of flights around the country. People packed into airports to travel to family and friends. Photos of large, maskless gatherings packed the social media feeds. Black Friday saw decreased traffic but not pandemic decreased traffic. Lines and packed parking lots were still in plentiful supply.
In many ways, it’s a repeat of the fall and winter of 1918–1919. We didn’t learn much from our forebearers. In fact, the flu waves of that time period look eerily similar to the COVID waves of 2020. As a society, we are so much more prepared and equipped than they were in 1918, but the problem remains.
American individualism is a concept that I teach in my sociology classes; we are a fascinating case study because our very roots were fed with this ideal. We love a good “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story. We praise the idea of having no help and doing it on your own. Our founders were preternaturally drawn to John Locke’s teachings; Locke promised individual freedom and limited powers of government. There were natural or “inalienable” rights that could not be taken away. However, our founders also tempered that individualism with the idea of a “public spirit”. They were hopeful the two would be intertwined.
I’m not sure we took that one to heart.
Even before the pandemic, I provided my students with examples of this. We often tout the stock market as a major indicator of our economic health, and, yet, it isn’t actually impacting the majority of Americans. We have tied healthcare to employment, even when it doesn’t really benefit individuals to do so. The collective good is often overlooked for what benefits just a few, and we accept this because it’s so entrenched in our society that we don’t really notice.
So, what or who is at fault? Is it the individuals on my social media timeline that are gathering en masse? Is it the anecdote I saw from a friend who said multiple members of her family had gotten COVID and they’d all been fine, so it was clearly overblown? Is it the “only 0.5% death rate, so I will live my life!” people? What about the “mental health is more important than physical health” folks? Is it the people having “mask meltdowns” in Wal-Mart? Certainly these little moments are a problem; individuals are making some poor decisions.
However, the American “rugged individualism” is not the whole story. It’s an easy scapegoat; the most obvious answer. As a popular quote early in the pandemic said, “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people”. We are simply too selfish to do what is necessary, right?
Yes and no.
Is our individualism contributing to the problem? There is no doubt that it is. But it goes much deeper than that. At some point, the pandemic became just as much a sociological problem as a public health problem. In sociology, we often discuss the idea of social structure; it is all of the routines and institutions we have put into place to make society run. It is critically important and absolutely necessary, but we really only notice it once it is gone or plagued with problems. For example, our public education system is one of the blocks of social structure in the United States; we need it because it not only provides learning, it also provides so much more for so many, including working parents. In March when the economy had to grind to an abrupt halt, we really saw how important schools were in our social structure.
Government is a huge piece of our social structure puzzle; it provides more structure than we can see on the surface, and it is especially important for public health and messaging purposes during a pandemic. As the theologian Peter Maurin once said, “We must make the kind of society where it is easier for people to be good”. Without government leading the way, it’s simply not possible to make it easier for people to be good.
Masks are a prime example of this; from the beginning, there was pushback against mask-wearing in the United States. It wasn’t an issue in other places. Chalking it up to our lacking national moral character would be easy; we simply aren’t giving and kind enough to help each other out by wearing a piece of cloth over our faces. Science means so little to us that we ignore it. It’s us.
The reality is much messier; our government struggled to put a good message together early on in the pandemic. Doctors and scientists that thought COVID was similar to the flu thought masks might not be as effective for stopping the spread, and they knew our healthcare workers were in desperate need of any supplies we had. So, the government messaging was confusing: do we wear one or do we not wear one? By the time we got a coherent message, the damage had already been done, and the government did very little to correct itself. States tried to implement policies, but it was patchwork and painfully incoherent. So, masks became another product in the culture wars. The individualism played a part, but the lack of coherent structure was a major factor.
It is so easy to blame individuals for the crisis; doing so allows us to easily identify and shame the people who refuse to follow the rules. Likewise, blaming individuals makes it feel like the pandemic is inevitable and not a solvable problem. That thinking takes aim at an enemy too small. What about the people we have chosen to represent us? Why have they not provided clearer instructions for a better response?
All around the world, we see an interesting pattern emerge. When we see polls, the number of people who are willing to do what is necessary for the greater good is staggeringly similar across the world. The U.S. doesn’t have drastically different numbers than any other country; the majority of people are happy to follow rules as long as they are clear. And, yet, we are having the worst response.
What if we had more cohesive messaging from the top to the bottom? What if the president wore a mask to every event and encouraged others to do so? What if our legislators had not simply washed their hands of the problem after passing one bill? What if people could feel that if they made sacrifices, they would not be thrown into chaos, debt, and poverty?
It’s so easy to blame people for their circumstances; even before COVID, we saw this with the poor in our country. It was often individual choices instead of structural issues that were demonized. We have seen this throughout the pandemic as well; people of color and the poor are far more likely to be negatively impacted by COVID-19. Does that make them uniquely susceptible to the disease? No. It makes them susceptible to a healthcare system that is less likely to help them. They are more likely to be confined in places like prisons, nursing homes, and even meatpacking plants where the disease spreads like wildfire. This is all structural in nature.
We have to recognize this in order to solve the problem; we can’t simply take videos of mask tantrums and shame people to feel better about ourselves. That doesn’t make us any safer, and it’s certainly not going to make COVID-19 shrink away into the darkness. Only the realization that we are all in this together, that we are not a collection of individuals, will get us through and help us eradicate the problem. We have to recognize that our social structure has to work: politics, economics, health care, public health, education, and so many other pieces have to come together. One of our most famous founders, Benjamin Franklin, once drew a comic that had a broken eight-part snake representing the British colonies. “Join or Die” it said. We would be wise to take this advice in 2020 and beyond. If we don’t make it easier for people to be good, what do we expect will happen?