Sunday, June 28, 2020


I was speaking with someone about the ongoing SARS-2 Coronavirus outbreak today, and they were lamenting the lack of care that people have for one another, citing the recent rise in cases attributed to states loosening restrictions on businesses and public gatherings, and the widely shared images of people being out in public without masks. During this part of the conversation it occurred to me that I’ve often heard American society described as “dog-eat-dog,” “cutthroat” and/or “every person for themselves.” And if the United States is thought to be oriented around an understanding of “personal responsibility” that tends to translate into “individual self-reliance,” isn’t it be expected that many people take that to heart? For all that it is said that looking out for oneself needn’t mean being unwilling to look out for others, if people understand that the only resource they can count on is themselves, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that they’d concern themselves with themselves. As the ability to both see to one’s own needs and also take care of others is seen as a luxury that accrues mainly to the “privileged,” others are encouraged to see themselves as too poor to be magnanimous.

Likewise, I often wonder if the framing of the epidemic is overly apocalyptic at times. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” is not exactly conducive to long-term thinking about the health of the community as a whole, and the often dire pronouncements of the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak may be contributing to that. Not in the sense that everyone is going to die (although I wonder what things would look like if something closer to the Plague was in play), but in the sense that this will be a seismic, and permanent, shift in that way people live their lives. If this disease is going to force the world to change, people who enjoyed it the way it was are pretty much out of time to savor the old paradigm. I suspect that this drives a certain amount of behavior that people consider reckless. Fear of missing out is the force that it is due more to active (if unintentional) cultivation than to accident.

The messages of “people will take care of one another” and “the world isn’t coming to an end” are not particularly difficult messages to craft, but given the general social climate, they can be very difficult to land. Expressing concern over people’s selfishness and the consequences of same often feels like doing the important work of trying to make the world a better place. But that can create a situation in which “taking things seriously” is often equated with “panicking.” And I think that this panic is not as useful as it’s made out to be.

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