There’s minimal agreement on many subjects in our nation this hot strange summer except that a half-year into the COVID-19 crisis we agree we don’t fully understand and have not tamed this disease.
This doesn’t mesh with the American way of thinking. Our national ethic imagines that we control, dominate and solve all problems rapidly and decisively. Americans subscribe to the idea of “rugged individualism,” a term attributed to Republican President Herbert Hoover, which means that individuals are responsible for their own successes and the government should do little to limit their rights or aid them in difficult times.
Rugged individualism sometimes works. It is not doing so now. Instead, COVID-19 is escalating in our nation because Americans believe it is their constitutional right to do whatever they want, even during a pandemic. Rugged individualism doesn’t correlate with “we’re all in this together.” Togetherness implies really caring about others.
Why is it so difficult to understand that constitutional rights of liberty and freedom of expression are not trampled when people are asked to wear a mask as COVID-19 rages? Recently, this newspaper reported that in March face coverings were started at the Ohio Vitamix plant. Since then, the plant, with hundreds of employees, has continued full operations with no coronavirus cases.
Going back some years, John Wayne and the cigarette smoking “Marlboro Man,” both sitting astride their horses, modeled this attitude. Rugged individualism works well for some, especially those blessed with good intellectual abilities, physical and mental health, family backgrounds or support systems and acceptance into their work and home communities.
In a 1928 campaign speech, Hoover observed that during World War I, the federal government had to be more active in Americans’ lives, but once the war ended people had to take more individual responsibility. A year later, the stock market collapsed and so did rugged individualism’s popularity. Millions then desperately needed the federal government’s aid and took it.
We need a coordinated scientific national policy on COVID-19 testing, treatment, supplies and personnel. We do not need individual states bidding against each other for equipment or the federal government advocating ineffective treatments and rejecting masks until six months into the crisis, when President Trump announced they are “patriotic.”
During economic, environmental or health disasters, rugged individualism is flawed. It doesn’t work for severe weather disasters or major industry layoffs. Today, it isn’t working for small businesspeople, retail employees, hourly workers, renters being evicted, those losing their health insurance and more. People with deep pockets, long-term economic successes and stable employment options still can afford to endorse the idea that striving individuals can conquer any problems, including COVID-19’s effects.
America’s 2020 goal should have been limited COVID-19 illnesses and deaths with economic stability. Instead, with our egocentric attitudes, our nation has one of the highest mortality and morbidity rates and record unemployment. Rugged individualism has some positive aspects, but not in a pandemic; it is escalating COVID-19 cases and economic hardships.