Nothing About The Public’s Response To The Pandemic Is Surprising

Americans Rarely Dabble In Collectivism. That They Would Do It This Drastically For This Long Was Always A Delusion
Crowds pack streets in Tampa, Florida ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl, featuring the hometown Buccaneers, the first time a team played in and won a Super Bowl game in their home stadium. (Photo Courtesy YouTube/Tampa Bay Times)

Social media was all abuzz this weekend by the crowds that packed the streets of Tampa, and later Raymond James Stadium, for Super Bowl LV, where patrons, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis himself, watched the Big Game maskless.

We’re in the middle of a pandemic, how can people be so careless? It’s the same scolding-about-guidelines narrative we’ve heard since last March’s Spring Break. We saw it last Memorial Day with crowds on the Jersey Shore and in Lake Of The Ozarks, Missouri; Fourth of July; Halloween; and traveling for Thanksgiving and Christmas. In every case, it was the same complaint. How can people be so careless? How can they not take this virus seriously? How can they not care about endangering the lives of other people?

Putting aside the fact that this Super Bowl was unique in that the host city, Tampa, saw its own team play in it – something that has never happened before – we are now nearly a year into a pandemic that has disrupted all of our normal lives, and forced into unprecedented social isolation and economic chaos. No one should have expected anything different at this point.

Let me be clear: Nothing about what has transpired during this pandemic should surprise anyone. We asked a nation that is ingrained in the concept of individualism to give up their lives for several weeks, which most did do voluntarily. Then, a few weeks in, we told them they had to do it for longer, perhaps indefinitely: No social life, no bars, no traveling, no family gatherings, no church, no school. We were told to give all that up, first for two weeks, then a month, and then until such a time that a bunch of doctors and politicians decide that it was safe to resume them. We told them maybe we can go back to some level of normal if we get caseloads low enough to test, trace and isolate, then watched that fail in most countries that tried it. I can’t think of a scenario that is more unlikely than Americans voluntarily giving up their joys and livelihoods for the sake of others for an extended period of time, let alone indefinitely. That people are surprised at this turn of events, frankly surprises me.

The truth is, this is not merely an American problem. There was a reason other countries enforced lockdowns by police or military force; because they knew some people wouldn’t voluntary comply, and as time went on more and more people would grow fatigued and frustrated and join in. Lockdowns have a shelf life. New Zealand was able to eliminate the SARS-COV2 virus from their borders after only a month of hard lockdown that led to hundreds of arrests; Australia took a few months longer, but had to strictly enforce restrictions – during which they literally locked residents in one apartment complex inside their units – and shut borders tightly, to get there. They didn’t “beat” COVID because they are better people, or because they have a collectivist spirit. I mean, the Australians? Really? They did it because their government restricted their civil rights. They did not have a choice in the matter.

The United States, in part because it is a nation that values individualism over collectivism, does not have clear legal authority to enact such enforcement. State borders cannot be closed, stay at home orders cannot be enforced. Even more reasonable, less intrusive restrictions like mask mandates and limits on size of gatherings have met legal opposition in the courts. And would we even want to? How do you think Donald Trump with the power to enforce stay-at-home orders with mass arrests would have ended? He tried to stage a coup d’etat last month, there is zero chance he wouldn’t have taken his new found COVID powers and used to keep himself in power as well.

Considering who we are as a country – one that wouldn’t even hold our elected officials to reasonable gun control legislation after the massacre of little children, or turned the other way to decades of racism and other forms of bigotry – I’m surprised we lasted this long and got the level of adherence to guidelines that we did. Americans, whether fairly or unfairly, developed a reputation in Europe to taking better to mask-wearing, for example.

I can’t think of a scenario that is more unlikely than Americans voluntarily giving up their joys and livelihoods for the sake of others for an extended period of time, let alone indefinitely

And considering the shifting goalposts and incoherent messaging, as well as lack of clarity in an end game, I’m surprised as many Americans are still following guidelines as they are today. Much of this is self-preservation – fear of your own death or the deaths of your loved ones, but that’s where vaccinations change the game, and even to some extent natural infections. Much of the recent talk about a return to normal revolves around when and if we’ll hit “herd immunity,” where enough Americans are considered immune to prevent exponential growth of new infections. With the more contagious variants popping up, that threshold is higher than it would have been a few months ago, perhaps too high to reasonably be met. There is justified concern that herd immunity won’t be reached, and no real plan for what happens if we don’t; just new stories about how the “end” gets pushed farther and farther away. First summer, then maybe fall, now maybe winter…if we’re lucky.

People who have been following guidelines are at some point going to get tired, and find their own exit ramps. Once you believe yourself and your circle to be free of the threat of death or serious illness, you’re likely to stop caring. I expect that’s what we’ll see happening as vaccinations become more widespread, and there remains a lack of clarity from experts as to what the end game is, and when/if we can return to normal.

Everything that we have been told by public health officials in this pandemic – how long social distancing would last, the changing story on masks – plays right into the hands of those who have defended our obsession with individualism: It has allowed libertarians and conservatives to once again make the argument that the only instinct you can trust, is your own. Increasingly, we’re going to find experts, who we’ve grown to trust, more and more marginalized as vaccinations increase and cases and deaths subside. Any calls to continue to take precautions and adhere to restrictions for the few people who can’t get a vaccine, or for the many who just won’t get one, is going to met with opposition at best, disdain at worst.

I suspect what will happen in the coming is cases and hospitalizations will decrease down to minimal levels, #COVID will fall out of the news cycle, and we’ll go back to normal even as experts scream “no, you can’t” into the void.

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