Coronavirus has become the American disease as it exploits a particular flaw in the American character and self-image. The question is, can America heal itself?
Coronavirus originated in China, of that there is no dispute. But by the time it has run its course, it will be ineluctably be known as The American Disease.
While there is a great deal of finger-pointing and blame-laying in the US politicosphere and commentariat about whose fault it all is, the debate has almost entirely skirted the underlying truth of the US epidemic: that coronavirus has become so devastating in America because the society was ripe for it.
It is a fact of all pandemic diseases that they become pandemic by exploiting certain traits and behaviours of their victims. In the case of HIV, it was a combination of sexual promiscuity and world travel that distributed this otherwise not-terribly-infectious rainforest monkey virus worldwide so effectively, claiming 36 million lives to date.
In the case of the highly-infectious but not-very-deadly coronavirus, the one human trait it hungered for was social contact. Those countries that stamped hard and early on this natural tendency got on top of the outbreak quickly. America, for various reasons, didn’t then face a popular rearguard action to open the economy up again – and feed the virus some more.
To understand why, it is necessary to return to the roots of American society, some 400 years ago. Early migrants consisted in large part of people from various religious sects who had found themselves unwelcome in Europe and people fleeing various forms of economic oppression, but who nonetheless brought with them a large dose of European mercantilism. These two elements – god and money – formed the American character, to such a degree that the worship of one was often compounded with the worship of the other.
The mercantilist stream held a strong infusion of British free marketeering and libertarian philosophy, which is shorthand for minimal intervention by governments and maximal freedom to exploit your fellow human. This was ultimately expressed, for the person in the street, in the American cult of individualism and personal liberty. Today says Suyawen Hao “Individualism is a core of American culture and the main value in America.” It has influenced all aspects of society, economics, politics and culture. It has played an enormous and far-reaching role in shaping the character of the nation.
Indeed, I recently heard an American fundamentalist preacher proclaim – in the context of coronavirus no less – that “individualism is a God-given right in America. Here we see the twin strands of god and money neatly plied together to form an unchallengeable assertion (unchallengeable because it is faith-driven – and you are not allowed to question someone’s faith). The same dubious cord is also braided into doctrines such as American exceptionalism, meaning ‘your rules don’t apply to us because we are special’.
Throughout US history this doctrine has manifested itself as fear, tending to paranoia at times, over anything that seems to assert society’s precedence over the individual, be it reds-under-the-beds, socialism, gun control, environmental regulation or Obamacare. Indeed, there is probably no more disparaging cuss-word in the American vocabulary than “Socialist!” – a point which frankly puzzles those genteel socialists in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Nevertheless, it has formed the philosophical mainspring of the American push to dominate world affairs since World War II.
To cut to the chase, coronavirus is a perfect lifeform for exploiting a society whose social bonds are weak, and which cares more about the individual than the community.
Asian societies, communist or capitalist, are seldom terribly altruistic – but they know how to snap into line when the society faces a common threat, how to subordinate the needs of the individual to the needs of society. When faced with a big new threat they tend to react fast to suppress the selfish individual and promote the common good.
America, or a very large part of it, doesn’t get that. It will pursue aggressive individualism, even if it kills them – which, in the case of coronavirus, it often does.
An infectious disease is a waltz between two partners, host and pathogen, with the pathogen exploiting the host’s weaknesses for its own survival and reproduction. Those weaknesses can be physical, as in the case of human T-cells providing a perfect home for HIV, or they can be behavioural, simply doing what the virus most needs in order for it to travel and copy itself.
Viruses are not very smart. Indeed, they are mainly dead, when outside their host, and only come to life once they have penetrated its cells. So you have to make enough suitable cells available for them to prosper. Rampant individualism – “Give me liberty, or give me death!” – does exactly that.
George Parker, writing in The Atlantic, came as close as anyone to diagnosing the US condition: “We Are Living in a Failed State. The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken.” And then he dumped, mainly on Trump. Yet even he shied at calling out the true underlying cause of the disease – the national obsession with putting individual interest higher than the public interest.
Trump and his family are products of the American cult of individualism, if not its present archetypes. Trump is the leader they had to have because he is stitched from the same gaudy material as the most outspoken individualists themselves, the whole gun-toting, climate-denying, land-grabbing, money trading, celebrity-adoring, air-and-water polluting herd of them.
The deep irony is that, in demanding a return to the open society in which coronavirus flourishes, the individualists are also demanding a long-lasting series of epidemic disease cycles, accompanied by equally painful and longer-lasting economic slumps. They are calling, not merely for more human sacrifices to the god of money but, unintentionally, for more money to be sacrificed to the god of individualism. They are, in effect saying “Give me liberty and give me death.”
Another irony is that a republic is, by definition, a community with interests in common. Individualism, as a belief, is thus at odds with true republicanism, if not its exact antithesis.
Admitting that their ‘god-given’ individualism is actually a lethal attribute when a virus like COVID-19 comes along is not something that most Americans, even those who are committed to its defeat, are comfortable doing. The concept remains so deeply rooted in the national self-image that, like the myth of the ever-victorious US military, they dare not question it – for that would be to deny who they think they are.
It is true that individualism has delivered many perceived benefits to America – innovation, corporate triumph, wealth accumulation, artistic creativity, political power, national vigour. It has also produced many of the selfish behaviours to which other countries take the greatest exception and so has bridled America’s capacity to lead and to influence world affairs.
The message delivered by a tiny virus is that there exists a need for a sounder balance between individualism and the common interest. Americans need to learn to love other Americans a bit more than they do, for their own individual good. And their responsibility to humankind likewise, if we are to overcome the shared catastrophic threats that face the world.
Somewhere in the confused mythology that makes up the US psyche, Americans must relearn the values of a mutual society in which each pays his or her dues to the greater good.
Can coronavirus teach them? The American disease is a test of the true American character.
Julian Cribb is an Australian science author. His latest books on the human future are “Surviving the 21st Century” and “Food or War”.