Individualism Has No Place in a Pandemic

There's a "public" in public health

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things by Hieronymus Bosch, 1505 (public domain — Wikipedia)

Pandemics don’t care where you were born.

They don’t discriminate based on gender, sexual preference, or the color of your skin.

Pandemics don’t care who you voted for, nor whom you support in 2020.

They don’t pay attention to what cable news channels you watch, radio stations you listen to, or whether you’re liberal or conservative.

Pandemics run roughshod over B.S., lies, and rosy forecasts.

Whether you’re rich or poor, old or young, healthy or unhealthy, a pandemic doesn’t discern.

You can shout in capital letters on Twitter, issue threats, or bury your head in the sand, and it won’t matter.

But somehow, there’s a partisan divide on the dangers of coronavirus.


The strongest weapon against a pandemic is the truth. Pandemics are best defeated by facing facts and taking action.


That action begins with the individual, but it is designed to benefit the public. And right now, that means taking a good hard look at what’s going on in other countries (see Italy, South Korea) and stepping up your efforts of social distancing.

For example, here’s a comparison of the curve in China (orange), where they instituted draconian lockdowns on January 23, 2020. That blunted, but did not totally stop the growth rate until mid-February. China was able to contain it by essentially shutting down large parts of its society.

Now look at the rest of the world (yellow). Note that the curve is continuing to grow. Unless we collectively lockdown the way China did, that curve will continue to be exponential in growth.

This website with a descriptive name captures the urgency behind the math.

But people still need reminding. Just because you don’t see anything happening, or just because you don’t exhibit symptoms, or because you’re young — none of this means it’s okay to go on with life as usual.

When you’re in public places that put you in close contact with many people, you stand a chance of spreading the virus, whether or not you get ill.

And it’s not just the elderly that are at risk; younger people are getting it as well. Remember, the Chinese doctor that originally warned the world about this was only in his 30s. He died from the disease.

People are recovering, certainly — but with loss of 10–20% of their lung functions. For life.

We need to stop and consider more than ourselves.

Because there have been so few cases so far, it’s difficult to see why this is necessary. And people who are being cautious are being accused of over-reacting.

But a look at these other countries — countries that are about two weeks ahead of us in this process — shows what we can control.

Real-time evidence of flattening the curve from Italy shows the difference. Lodi had the first Covid-19 case in Italy, and implemented a shutdown on February 23. Bergamo waited until March 8:

Source: https://osf.io/fd4rh/?view_only=c2f00dfe3677493faa421fc2ea38e295

One thing to keep in mind, though: this is not a “foreign virus.”

When there is a cure, it will not be only for Americans. Yes, I had to write that, because Germany’s Health Ministry confirmed that President Donald Trump “offered large sums of money” to the German pharmaceutical company CureVac to agree to sell rights to a possible coronavirus vaccine exclusively to America, “only for the U.S.”

As a comparison, on April 12, 1955, Edward R. Murrow asked Jonas Salk who owned the patent to the polio vaccine. “Well, the people, I would say,” Salk responded. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Why didn't Jonas Salk patent his polio vaccine?

But Americans did have to deal with something like this in the past: the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic. Two cities, Philadelphia and St. Louis, both had outbreaks, and their response made the difference between a spike in cases.


Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

I know this is a hard pill for some Americans to swallow. The land of the free and the home of the brave doesn’t take kindly to taking orders.

When you’re ‘Murican, you’re fiercely individualistic and bristle at someone who might be smarter than you are, telling you what to do.

Even in times of a public health crisis.

Look at the first seven sentences of this essay again. Individualism has no place in a pandemic.

A whole swath of the country has become not just immune from science, but downright hostile to it. As if their personal (non)belief in science matters to facts and physical law.

And yet, amid school system closings in Nevada, Arizona and New York City, and bars and restaurants closing in Ohio, Massachusetts and Illinois, and bars, breweries and wineries closing in California (as of the time of writing), there are stubborn hold-outs who buck math and science because they can’t be told what to do.

I’ve even seen some quoting their Constitutional right to free assembly being threatened because of these closings.

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is a phrase familiar to every American. It’s embedded in a document older than the Constitution itself: the Declaration of Independence.

These “unalienable rights” are in a specific order for a reason.

Life comes first.

Life.

Not pursuit of Happiness.

Not Liberty.

Life.

When the actions of the many infringe upon that first unalienable right, then we should consider self-imposing limits on our behavior. If we don’t have the self-discipline to carry this out (see above), then we need help.

Right now, the C.D.C. is recommending no gatherings of more than 50 people. But in the last 24 hours, we’ve had examples like these:

Bar owner Steve Smith had this to say after Nashville Mayor John Cooper ordered bars and restaurants to close:

“In your more politically conservative regions, closing is not interpreted as caring for you. It’s interpreted as liberalism, or buying into the hype… One pastor said half of his church is ready to lick the floor, to prove there’s no actual virus.”

Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez — no stranger to online conflict — suggested people stay home to stop unknowingly spreading the disease. An ex-Ms. Nevada had this to say:

What’s worse, doing it or bragging about it like a sociopath?

Then there’s the Lt. Governor of Florida, who sarcastically expressed his disappointment at Vail Resorts on Twitter, saying “Thank you for making this announcement as we are driving in to Vail. Came all the way from Florida only to have our family’s vacation destroyed.”

It’s not about you.

And it’s not just sticking a finger in the eye of the establishment with personal behavior; Rep. Devin Nunes was on national television, recommending the opposite of what health officials were cautioning:

And the sheriff got into it too:

And then this kind of pure idiocy:

This willful disregard for the safety and well-being of others.

This is the opposite of how a society is supposed to function.

The prevailing attitude of these people is utter disregard for anyone but themselves. Their personal mantra seems to be “America. I’ve got mine. %*@$ you.”

Public health doesn’t work like that. In a public health situation, we’re all in this together. We’re only as strong as the weakest link. Somehow we need to find the better angels of our nature.

In South Korea, when the disease was at 30 infections, it was thought to be contained. But when Patient 31 presented, that blew everything up:

She travelled to crowded spots in Daegu, as well as in the capital Seoul. On February 6 she was in a minor traffic accident in Daegu, and checked herself into an Oriental medicine hospital. While at that hospital, she attended services at the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, on February 9 and again on February 16.

In between those visits, on February 15, doctors at the hospital said they first suggested she be tested for the coronavirus, as she had a high fever. Instead, the woman went to a buffet lunch with a friend at a hotel. In an interview with local newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, the woman denied that doctors had advised her to be tested. As her symptoms worsened, however, doctors say they once again advised her to be tested. On February 17, she finally went to another hospital for the test.

She’s like the Typhoid Mary of COVID-19 (although in Mary’s defense, she was asymptomatic).


This isn’t about you.

It’s about the health of other people — people who may be immuno-compromised, like a child with leukemia, a spouse with HIV, a parent with cancer, or a grandparent with a history of pneumonia.

It’s about the workload on healthcare workers and the strain on our already fragile healthcare system. We don’t have the requisite number of beds nor ventilators to accommodate a spike in sick patients.

Italian hospitals cleared out beds and prepared for additional patients, but by all accounts, they weren’t prepared for a tsunami of COVID-19 patients. They found themselves having to choose between ailing patients: a 40 year-old with acute appendicitis, a 40 year-old with COVID-19 symptoms who had two children, and a 60 year-old with a history of lung disease; there was only room and time enough to treat one.


What can you do?

Here are some steps you can take to help reduce the load on healthcare workers and to spare other sick patients:

  1. Don’t panic, but be alert.

  2. Wash your hands often and practice good cough and sneeze etiquette.

  3. Try to touch your face as little as possible, including your mouth, nose, and eyes.

  4. Practice social distancing, no hugs and kisses, no handshakes, no high fives. If you must, use safer alternatives.

  5. Do not attend concerts, stage plays, sporting events, or any other mass entertainment events.

  6. Refrain from visiting museums, exhibitions, movie theaters, night clubs, and other entertainment venues.

  7. Stay away from social gatherings and events, like club meetings, religious services, private parties, bars and restaurants.

  8. If you can’t cook for yourself and need to use restaurants, use take out or delivery services.

  9. Reduce travel to a minimum. Don’t travel long distances if not absolutely necessary.

  10. Do not use public transportation if not absolutely necessary.

  11. If you can work from home, work from home. Urge your employer to allow remote work if needed.

  12. Replace as many social interactions as possible with remote alternatives like phone calls or video chat.

  13. Do not leave your home unless absolutely necessary.

  14. When in supermarkets, try to go at “off” hours and please only get what you truly need.

  15. Think about donating to a local food bank or shelter. They may be in more need right now.

  16. If you’re concerned with the impact this might have on local businesses, call them or visit them online and buy a gift certificate or gift card.

As far as information-gathering goes, here are some good resources:

Please, don’t share any information that isn’t trustworthy. An infodemic is just as harmful as a pandemic.

A great resource is this interview with the New York Times’ beat reporter on plagues and pestilences, Donald G. McNeil, Jr.


There’s hope

The next few weeks will be tough. No question. But there are things to look forward to and shining examples of humanity everywhere.

In an essay on his Facebook page, veteran newsman Dan Rather had this to say:

“We humans tend not to be good at anticipating problems. We seem to think good times will continue, even as we make decisions that leave ourselves vulnerable. But we are good at fixing things. We are capable of great energy, ingenuity, and that most important quality, empathy.”

We have an opportunity to do the right thing and to look out for each other.

Personally, I’ve seen many companies stepping up in this time to change policies, extend their services, and open up their business to more people who need them.

I’m keeping a running tally in a Google Doc of Corporate Goodwill Efforts During the COVID-19 Crisis. Take a look. If there are others you know about, please leave a comment here or hit me up on Twitter.

We’ll make it through this and come out stronger.

We just have to be willing to admit our vulnerability and take appropriate action on behalf of every American, whether we care about them or not.


I’ll leave it to a far better thinker, writer and leader than I to sum up:

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1861

Thanks for reading this far. Stay stafe.

And I’ll see you on the Internet.