Every time I speak to someone in the US, which is multiple times daily when you consider WhatsApp, iMessage, FaceTime, and social media, the topic of who is and who isn’t wearing a mask always comes up.
The conversation could be about anything, but undoubtedly, in passing, a neighbour’s mask lapse will come up. A colleague’s possible vacation is seen as ‘selfish’, there is commentary over who will and who won’t be sending their child to school in September, and then they mention a friend who hasn’t left their home since March, deemed to be ‘overkill.’
There is a difference in how society as a whole is handling the pandemic in the US as compared to here in the UK. No, there isn’t widespread agreement or compliance here. And yes, that’s a problem. And here like there, there are very valid criticisms of leadership.
But none of that compares to how divided people in the US are. It’s led to all sorts of paranoia even among those who should agree. Distrust levels are high and everyone is scared they will be killed by their neighbour.
There are two reasons for this. One is basic American individualism. On the frontier back in the day, independence and self-reliance were necessary ingredients for survival just as they were important tools for later immigrants moving to the US to start new lives. These stories are passed down from generation to generation. Every American has a parent or ancestor, or something in between, who risked everything to move there and start over. (Those whose families didn’t move to the US by choice also have heroic stories of perseverance and grit that are used to motivate and inspire descendants).
During a pandemic, however, having a sense of the common good – wearing a mask for others, social distancing for others would bring the change in numbers that Americans need to see.
An opinion piece in The Week called this individualism out as a “suicide pact.” Crises that require collective action are simply beyond the capacity of a nation that values the individual over the collective.
Let’s start with school. When it became clear that New York City schools would start out alternating between in-person and remote instruction, things got immediately ugly. In a Facebook post in a parents’ group I’m part of, one mom expressed fear of returning vacationers spreading the virus and said “I’m not comfortable sending my child to school when so many folks are traveling to highly infected states like Florida and others.” No-one trusts that their neighbours have their back and would properly quarantine.
Travel is another biggie. When I was in Asda the other day, I was looking at UK-EU converters for my electronics. There were only two left and I was surprised that so many people were travelling. I was considering posting the mostly empty rack of converters on social media, or texting it out, but I stopped myself. Let’s just call that part of my un-Americanisation process. I am not in the business of alarming or shaming.
Travel is incredibly fraught within the US. There are quarantine requirements between states. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut allow free travel between them, but mandate a 14-day quarantine to people coming from 37 other states as well as Puerto Rico. Back in March, Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo had the Rhode Island State Police stop cars with New York license plates to give the drivers copies of her quarantine order to help halt the spread of the virus.
And Americans are quick to judge everyone who travels. That even extends to me. My parents have been known to tell me to just “stay put.” When I tell them that we are allowed to travel and that there are sanctioned travel corridors here, they don’t seem to understand.
That’s the other issue with Americans. We are so used to being first and being best, that the understanding that though international travel is off-limits to Americans, but isn’t to others, means that others must be mistaken, their countries must be doing something wrong, or must be overly permissive and couldn’t possibly be taking the virus as seriously as Americans are.
Americans are now in a situation where there are limited resources, goodwill being one of them. And whenever that happens, human nature dictates that you look around to see what others have and undoubtedly find yourself lacking in something. Now, with eviction protections running out and unemployment benefits expiring today, with no plan in place to extend them, the situation over there is dire, and people are very angry.
In his eulogy for American civil rights leader John Lewis, President Barack Obama said “He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, that in all of us there is a longing to do what’s right, that in all of us there is a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect.”
Obama followed that by describing the state of many Americans today, “So many of us lose that sense. It’s taught out of us. We start feeling as if, in fact, that we can’t afford to extend kindness or decency to other people. That we’re better off if we are above other people and looking down on them, and so often that’s encouraged in our culture.”
It is that version of Americans that we are seeing now. The one that is stretched so thin they just can’t afford to extend kindness or decency to anyone else, and the feeling that those attributes exist in finite amounts and we need to keep all of it for ourselves.
I’m hoping that as time goes on other American qualities re-emerge, and we start embodying some other American traits like our generosity and optimism. For my money, it’s our optimism that’s our greatest strength; if we can harness our belief that America will be all right into action, it just might be.
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