Ever since it became clear that the spread of coronavirus in the United States was fast moving from nightmare to reality, we’ve been told that it’s up to us — as individuals — to decide how best to keep ourselves and our families safe. It’s your personal decision. Whatever you feel comfortable with. This is what neoliberalism looks like: even in a pandemic that potentially affects everyone, you’re on your own.
An anxious nation tuned in to hear the president last week. The top decision-maker in the world’s richest and most powerful country had this to offer: “Wash your hands.”
At the local and state level, governments are finally treating the coronavirus as the serious societal crisis that it is. More states and cities are banning large gatherings. New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and others have now closed schools; New York only made the decision this week after extensive public pressure, including threats of a sick-out from teachers. New York City finally closed bars, restaurants, and movie theaters on Sunday.
But the epidemic had already been a reality for weeks. During this time, every day brought a fresh dilemma for each American. Some of us have had to decide for ourselves whether to go to a job that puts food on the table, even if we fear infection or feel unwell. Some have had to weigh whether to leave a possibly infectious baby with vulnerable elderly grandparents (most low-wage workers don’t have paid sick leave).
Should our kids continue to attend school if the city hasn’t closed the public system down? Should we keep travel plans? How much should we hassle elderly parents who probably aren’t doing enough to keep themselves safe? I wondered Thursday — as Major League Baseball announced a suspension of its season — whether my son should keep going to indoor baseball practice, given that the Trump enthusiasts coaching his team are probably more likely to take their cues from Sean Hannity than from Anthony Fauci.
Even throughout last week, the dilemmas piled up liked canned tuna from Costco. Should New Yorkers ride the subway at all, ever? What constitutes a good enough reason? Should you keep a hair appointment? Should you continue to cut hair if that’s your job? Should you hook up with a lover? Indeed, who gets to have sex in the era of “social distancing”? And what about the tasks that we need to do to create a world better equipped to handle the next pandemic? Should we canvass? Should anyone still be attending political meetings or hosting phone banks in their homes?
Some decisions were luxury goods. Many have had no say in the amount of risk they’re assuming. Many workers have no possibility of working remotely, and no childcare if schools are canceled. Others (nurses, EMTs, subway drivers) perform jobs so crucial to our society that they have no choice but to keep showing up — despite the risks of exposure to the virus. But even these people must, like all of us, make small, generally uninformed decisions every day about how to limit their exposure.
None of these matters should have been up to us purely as individuals, for so long, given that every decision had such broad potential social consequences. For one thing, as a friend noted about her own opinions on how to behave during the coronavirus, they are based on “my PhD in epidemiology from the University of My Ass.” Most of us are in that situation.
According to those with more impressive credentials, the answer to “should I go somewhere and be around other people right now” always turned out to be “no.” And this has been the case for weeks. But until the end of last week, there has been almost no government policy supporting that decision. And until late last week, there was still little policy ensuring that large numbers of people would be able to follow such advice (on Friday, Trump and the Democrats agreed to a package of emergency measures including emergency sick pay, which, given the president’s support, is expected to pass the Senate this week.)
Leaving fewer decisions to the individual and acting quickly on everyone’s behalf works. China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea — all countries where the coronavirus is now declining — have done just that. China has locked down huge cities. All those countries banned people from gathering in groups. China took repressive measures that some public health experts think might have backfired, but at least they didn’t let each citizen decide on her own whether her kids should go to school.
Nothing about this situation should be left up to us as individuals. Not only because, as individuals, we are not infectious disease experts and don’t always make great decisions — though it’s true that some of us are total idiots, continuing to go on cruises and take advantage of cheap air travel. And not because deciding for ourselves can be stressful and burdensome — but because a pandemic is a problem affecting all of humanity.
Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society,” but even her ideological heirs can get coronavirus; attendees at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) were exposed. Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president have also been exposed. Both say they have tested negative, though in Bolsonaro’s case, there were some media reports to the contrary.
On our own, for weeks, many of us have been managing our anxieties through a practice that the writer Tracy Quan has called “grabby neoliberal hoarding.” Shelves are empty at stores located in neighborhoods where people can afford to stock up. The antisocial drift of this prepping is particularly disturbing when it comes to vital supplies like face masks; most people don’t need them, but by stocking up, they have caused a shortage, leaving actual health care workers unequipped to do their jobs safely. But the stockpiling of other items – mainly of food, but also, with a neurotic anality Freud would have loved, toilet paper – is worrying, too.
I keep thinking of a children’s book, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter (part of the “Little House” series, based on the author’s frontier girlhood). The Wilder brothers have all the wheat in town. Because of a winter-long blizzard, trains can’t get in, so no one else can get any. Their neighbors are starting to starve.
Almanzo Wilder doesn’t want to share his seed wheat, or he will have nothing to plant in the spring (being a farmer, he would then have no livelihood). He risks his life to ride off into the blizzard in search of a distant farmer somewhere who is rumored to have wheat, so he can save his neighbors without sacrificing his own supply. (What a man! As you’ve probably figured out from the surnames: reader, she married him.)
It’s a riveting scenario, all the more so given that the books are libertarian propaganda: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, an anti–New Deal fanatic, took a heavy hand in her mother’s writing and editing processes. Thus, the books glorify the family’s rugged individualism. Biographies of the author reveal that, due to Lane’s editing, they gloss over the family’s intricate dependence on government policy and subsidies.
Yet Almanzo’s seed-wheat dilemma is one of many moments in which, despite Lane’s ideology, complex reality pokes through. Even the most rabid individualist can’t gloss over the fact that we have collective responsibilities and, if left on our own, especially in a crisis, many of us will die.
During this crisis, hoarding is our way of managing our fears, not only of contracting the coronavirus, but of facing its disruptions alone. These fears are rational in a society whose leaders, in response to a deadly threat, can only tell us, “Wash your hands.” We all deserve a functioning state that can provide for everyone, and a society that places care for one another at its heart, not at its distant margins. To get there, we need more solidarity and much less greed.