The look of joy on his face when he runs through a sprinkler in the middle of a hot summer day. The feeling of pride at his middle school chorus concert. Late nights helping with homework. A warm hug in the aftermath of that first teenage breakup. The awe that he has finally graduated high school, and wait, how did that happen so quickly? College too! Watching him find true love and making a grandparent of you.
These are a few experiences that the parents of a California boy won’t ever have.
They will remember the first cough that seemed like nothing more than a midsummer cold. That nervous feeling when the cough got a bit worse and they decided to do a test. The sleepless nights wondering how long it would take their son to recover and if there would be permanent damage. Week after week of growing despair as a fever followed fatigue and cold sweat, and the last words he spoke in his boyish tenor before a plastic tube was forced down his little trachea because his little lungs just couldn’t do it on their own anymore. And then, instead of helping to plan a wedding in 15 years, they are planning his funeral. No sprinkler. No chorus concert. No homework. No breakup. No graduations. Just a living nightmare and the lingering self doubt that maybe avoiding that trip to the playground could have been the difference.
Death awaits us all. It is the only thing we know for certain. But our ability to understand and embrace that and still suck the marrow out of life is what makes us intrinsically human. It comes in all forms: In the United States, some 650,000 people will die this year of heart disease, tailed closely by cancer at about 600,000; accidents of varying sorts account for over 150,000 annual deaths; and diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, influenza, cerebrovascular diseases like stroke, and others hover between 50,000-120,000.
So what is so insidious about the novel coronavirus? What are another 156,000 deaths addended to a long list of infectious grim reapers eagerly awaiting us each year? Perhaps, that they could have been avoided. We’ll never know for sure, but a cursory comparative analysis between the U.S. and other countries with similar presentation and distribution does seem to suggest that if we had handled the response more aggressively and faithfully, we could again be filling stadiums and buying notebooks and backpacks in preparation for the new school year.
Alas, here we are in August 2020, just 7 months after the first detected case in the U.S. and several months after other countries with worse initial outbreaks have restarted their economies (albeit with a guarded posture), and brides-to-be are stripping their wedding lists down to their closest family and friends while teachers quiver at the prospect of locking themselves in old classrooms with 30 students who have been God knows where with God knows who day after day when nothing has really changed. Still no vaccine. Still no cure. And a daily spike in the number of cases almost everywhere.
In the grand scheme of things, most of us probably won’t die from coronavirus and many of us won’t even get infected. But how many people – how many of our loved ones – have to die for us to take this seriously? Did you know that less than 16,000 people are murdered each year in the U.S.? And yet, we invest how many hundreds of millions of dollars in law enforcement – police, FBI, all those acronyms from your favorite crime dramas. One theory that seems to be pretty popular right now in certain circles is that investment and trust in law enforcement corresponds to a lower rate of danger for the public. I might go as far as to propose that we as a nation believe in the crazy notion that if a death can be prevented, we should use our resources to prevent it.
And yet, we are still debating just how preventable coronavirus really is. What coronavirus has sunk its teeth into in the United States that it couldn’t find anywhere else is a characteristic so distinctly American that it might end up being our demise: Individualism! Sociologists have long noted that on the spectrum of Collectivist vs. Individualistic societies, the United States is the radical definition of individualism. That’s where the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, “We can do it”, “Don’t tread on me” spirit derives. And it’s not inherently a good or bad thing – it’s just who we are.
Our individualism is largely what has helped the United States blaze the frontiers of gay rights and feminism (even despite the tremendous resistance these have been met with along the way). It is what drives innovation and allows for the American dream to exist at all (even if it doesn’t exist for vast swaths of the population). But like any other cultural trait, it is vital to recognize that individualism can be a double-edged sword, and right now we are being mercilessly lacerated by the second edge. Our individual liberty to not wear a mask in public supersedes the collective desire to control a pandemic: Individualism vs. Collectivism at its ugliest.
Ever since our breathtaking victory in World War II and the subsequent decades of American prosperity (though undergirded by an evergreen fear of nuclear annihilation), we have inflated this sense of individualism to such an extent that it has eroded the very infrastructure that makes it possible – We promise to accept your “poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free”… if they can afford the tens of thousands of dollars to emigrate here. We guarantee “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”… as long as you don’t need any support from society to pursue that life, liberty, and happiness.
We have decaying highways, gutted public transportation, hospitals that shackle all but Midas to a lifetime of bills, higher education that is required for a livable income but restricted to those willing to take on suffocating debt, housing that was last affordable on stagnant basic income decades ago… and a couple hundred white guys in suits who were born into wealth telling the rest of us that we should embrace our individualism and make our own health and wealth.
Policy – constrictive and difficult as it may be – could be the difference between a family planning their son’s wedding in 15 years or planning his funeral now. But that is one hurdle that we as a nation have demonstrated that we cannot clear. We cherish our liberty, our individualism too damn much. Policy will not save our kids, our siblings, our parents, our friends. So I guess I’ll hope that our individualism at least helps motivate our scientists to develop a vaccine or cure, because we clearly can’t be trusted with our liberty.