Will the Coronavirus Deepen Our Extreme Individualism or Foster Solidarity?

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

At a time when many Americans remain in their homes, only venturing out for essential needs, other Americans were going to packed bars to drink the night away. As some are separated from their loved ones who are desperately sick, perhaps on the brink of death, other Americans have been flying to Florida to party at the beach.

The response of the Trump administration to the coronavirus pandemic has been similarly reckless. Early action to prepare for the crisis, get testing capacity ready, ensure an adequate supply of needed medical goods, and encourage the social distancing necessary to contain the spread of the virus was absent. Instead, US President Donald Trump downplayed the threat and dismissed concerns about it as a “hoax” designed to undermine his presidency.

As the gravity of the crisis became more apparent to all and the potential for economic catastrophe loomed, Trump finally shifted away from such rhetoric, but it not clear that the administration has the desire or ability to respond swiftly and adequately to the crisis.

The crisis has revealed the emptiness of ‘America First’ isolationism. Populist nationalism offers no solution to many of the most critical global challenges we face, from climate change to global pandemics. And the costs of this head-in-the-sand approach are now plain for all to see—at least, all of those who are following the facts rather than dismissing factual reality as fake news.

The moral bankruptcy and recklessness of American libertarianism is also clear. The United States still lacks a system of universal healthcare—something that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, but is acutely problematic at a time like this. As businesses are forced to shut their doors, American workers are wondering how they will survive without an adequate social safety net. While some with libertarian inclinations have said that now is the time for robust government action, others continue to grasp tightly to a destructive ideology that is far too popular in the US.

These mentalities contribute to what Pope Francis has described as a ‘throwaway culture’. Everything is judged by its immediate utility. Human beings are treated as objects to be discarded when they are no longer of use to those pursuing their naked self-interest. Autonomy and choice trump human dignity and social justice.

Hyperindividualism has taken root in the United States. It drives this throwaway culture. And it is present on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum. In a country that has long prized individual initiative, it has reached new heights, threatening not only the vulnerable, but also the very foundations of our republican institutions—and that was before the present crisis.

This extreme individualism and the throwaway culture it generates offer the allure of freedom, but have instead delivered misery for countless Americans. There is a loneliness epidemic in the United States with a growing number of people experiencing chronic loneliness, lacking meaningful connections, and having fewer intimate friendships. Deaths of despair—from suicide to drug and alcohol poisoning and abuse—have exploded in the last two decades. As civil society has receded, isolation and despair have advanced.

One might think that the coronavirus crisis will only make things worse. But maybe not.

Perhaps forced isolation will allow Americans to see that we need meaningful connections in our lives—even those that bind us in some way.

Perhaps more Americans will come to realize that no person is an island. Everything we accomplish in life is dependent on others. And our actions—for better or worse—inevitably affect others. As we sacrifice our freedom of action to ‘flatten the curve’, we might come to see that sacrifices we make for the common good can save lives and protect human dignity. We might recognize that real freedom requires responsibility—that it is more than license.

The threat of coronavirus may open American eyes to the fragility of life and universal vulnerability of human existence. Illusions of control and absolute autonomy are being shattered. It is clear that our flourishing depends on the behavior of others. The comfortable individual existence many have focused intently on constructing is being exposed as a house of cards.

A firmer foundation for human flourishing is solidarity. It has the potential to foster the community that we crave as social beings. Instead of grasping for comfort in imagined invincibility, it can offer real support in shared sacrifices and vulnerability.

If solidarity grows stronger, it can help us respond not only to the crisis at hand, but the economic insecurity, senseless violence, bigotry, and environmental degradation that preceded it. It can inspire us to turn from plutocracy, isolationism, and xenophobia toward a greater commitment to social justice, the protection of human life and dignity, and ending the throwaway culture. And it can help to restore and revitalize democratic institutions and norms.

Perhaps by living apart, Americans will learn how to live together.