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The real threat revealed by COVID-19

| Tuesday, March 24, 2020

In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 has revealed a plethora of weaknesses in the U.S. health system. From trouble developing diagnostic tests early on, to questions surrounding what screening and treating the virus will look like for those without insurance, the coronavirus has exposed just how underprepared the U.S. was for the outbreak of a pandemic. I have no doubt that this crisis will eventually abate, and a return to normalcy will take place, allowing for conversations about things like universal health care to reassert their dominance in the news cycle. Medical experts will look at what went wrong, identifying the inefficiencies that compounded problems, and hospitals will move to make sure they are better equipped to handle large influxes of infected people. But the societal problems that COVID-19 has highlighted are not only medical and economic — they are philosophical as well. It is this last point that I fear will go unaddressed in the wake of this pandemic.

Like all other Americans, I have recently found my life inconvenienced by social distancing and self-quarantine directives. As the days pass, my understanding of the goals of these measures has improved, and my new reality has felt less like house arrest. It is not panic and fear that are driving these recommendations, but instead, the recognition that by collectively hunkering down, we can slow the spread of the virus enough to prevent the inundation of hospitals and the heightened suffering of those most vulnerable among us.

Earlier this week, my now daily Netflix session was interrupted by a text message from a friend.

“$35 round trip to Florida,” they said.

I laughed and shook my head at the absurdity of a $35 plane ticket to Florida during peak spring break season before typing back that I’d definitely be in if it weren’t for the current situation. My friend didn’t understand what I meant. From their perspective, we were on an extended spring break and classes had been moved online — the situation couldn’t be more perfect. It took me a moment to realize that my friend, like so many others, was completely unvexed by recent developments and guidelines related to COVID-19. We argued over the need to limit travel and self-isolate for a few minutes before we arrived at the uncomfortable root of the problem.

“I just don’t like my life inconvenienced because of others.”

That was their final defense. And the deep-rooted nature of the problem we as a country are facing hadn’t sunk in for me until that moment. No, COVID-19 isn’t the threat — we are. The real threat is ourselves. The strength of this country has always been in the ability of its citizens to come together during difficult times and overcome. I fear that the current state of our society and the way it has conditioned many of us has handicapped our ability to do just that.

The worst offenders, in my opinion, are my own generation. We’re okay with putting an anonymous “other” at risk if it means we don’t have to miss out on a party or cancel a vacation. After all, our age group seems to be relatively unaffected by the virus, so what’s the big deal? This outlook stems from the fact that we have absolutely no concept of what it means to sacrifice for a greater good. Raised in an individualistic culture driven by consumerism, we are used to getting whatever we want exactly when we want it. We haven’t lived through any sort of true national struggle; we’ve never had to delay our own gratification or surrender personal comforts for something bigger than ourselves. These things and others are currently manifesting in the fact that mass cooperation for a collective good has become a very unnatural concept, especially within younger demographics of this country.

I want to be clear. I do not think my friend is a bad person, nor are the many others who share their opinion on this subject. I am not trying to claim a moral high ground in writing this, but simply commenting on the thought process that guides many of us today. Whether or not you think this virus is being blown out of proportion, the fact is that the experts and leaders in this country are advising that certain actions be followed to protect those most at risk. What we have seen take place in response to this shows how foreign the idea of personal sacrifice for a more abstract good has become in America today. That is a philosophical problem which could lead to our downfall as a nation at some point in the future, when we need to band together to stop an opponent more lethal than COVID-19.

Mitch MacDonald
Mar. 18

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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