Turbulent reopenings and partisan mask wars have only highlighted the nation’s preoccupation with personal liberty above all — even a deadly pandemic.
For months, it’s been clear that the world has separated into two camps: the rule followers, observant of social distancing and hopeful of quashing the pandemic; and the risk takers, who have been storming the nation’s beaches, bars, and burger joints in spite of the coronavirus — and public health efforts to curtail its spread.
Some states, such as New York, have contained new cases, but others, including Texas and Arizona, brazenly reopened even as cases continued to rise, unleashing a torrent of pent-up partiers. Now, even as an illusion of normalcy has slowly returned, rates of infection are reaching new records, with cases surging in dozens of states.
The US is “going in the wrong direction,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and frequent face of the Trump administration’s virus response, warned senators recently.
In March, the new virus pushed dozens of countries to implement strict isolation methods to prevent a global health crisis. In China, coronavirus measures were hard to evade, as authorities sealed apartment buildings and scanned millions for rising body temperatures. But in the United States, these restrictions have been harder to devise and enforce, mostly because democratic norms and a strong sense of individual liberty prevail. So, instead, the crisis has exposed humanity’s tendency to flout the rules.
Masks — although recommended by federal and world health officials as effective in slowing the virus’s spread — have become a polarizing symbol of this dangerous phenomenon. In recent weeks, protesters have descended on government buildings and private businesses to decry face-covering requirements, calling them “muzzles” and “communist.” In one viral video, a maskless Florida man shoved a Walmart employee who tried to enforce the store’s face-covering policy. In another, a woman at a California Trader Joe’s screamed at employees and customers after others in the store criticized her for shopping without a mask. Some scofflaws have taken to brandishing sham cards from a phony “Freedom to Breathe Agency” that purportedly exempt them from mask-wearing.
Adding fuel to this fire, officials say, are the multitudes of young people determined to socialize. Some have tried to pin the problem on the Black Lives Matter protests that have continued for weeks, but preliminary research using geolocation data suggests these events had no impact on the virus’s spread. Instead, public health experts are attributing the surge in new cases to the mask-free masses flocking to reopened restaurants and bars, pool parties and lazy rivers.
“They’re conducting themselves like it’s pre-Covid, and that’s not going to work anymore,” Bruce Dart, director of the Tulsa Health Department, told the Washington Post. Younger people, he said, are “not social distancing, not wearing masks or paying attention to hand-washing.” In one stunning case shortly after Memorial Day, a group of 16 friends all tested positive for the virus after visiting a newly reopened bar in Florida.
In the months since worldwide lockdowns were adopted, there’s been a recurring theme among coronavirus rebels: They do what they want. In the early weeks of the pandemic, people swarmed beaches around the world, from Florida to Bondi Beach in Australia. “If I get corona, I get corona,” one spring breaker told Reuters. “At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.” (He later apologized, calling his comment “insensitive.”)
Even after quarantines had been instituted, Washington, DC, Metro officials in March had to practically beg riders not to visit the city’s famous cherry blossoms, which they did anyway, in droves. Brits took to crowded pubs to chant “f*** coronavirus!” And one woman went viral when she tweeted about her defiant trip to a crowded Red Robin restaurant. “It was delicious,” she tweeted, “and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want.”
Even officials are taking smug positions on the public health warnings. “I don’t need his advice anymore,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said of Fauci on Fox News in late June.
The poor reaction of a growing number of people to social distancing and mask policies — even as the virus resurges — comes as no surprise to psychologists, sociologists, and public health experts. No one alive today has experience with a pandemic of this severity, catching even the most experienced researchers off-guard, not to mention the average person sorting through their Facebook feed. Conflicting government messaging and reopenings of restaurants, bars, hair salons, and gyms in many states have only exacerbated the wildly divergent individual responses, and reliance on personal responsibility in public health matters.
It’s created fertile ground for the public to practice the long-held wisdom that we must “carry on” in a crisis: For at least a century, citizens have believed that in the midst of a disaster, their job is to go on with their daily lives as best they can — as if it were a safeguard against an unseen enemy.
“We feel like we have to do something,” said Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton University and author of Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats. But without a good frame of reference for the present crisis, we’ve looked to lessons learned from past calamities, including natural disasters, terrorism, war, and economic collapse, to guide us. “We’re a little bit like generals fighting the last war,” he said.
But the old rules no longer apply. The pandemic is unprecedented, said Amy Fairchild, a public health ethicist and the dean of Ohio State University’s College of Public Health. “In this moment in time, ‘carry on’ could be a formula for disaster.”
When the coronavirus first arrived in the United States, people cast about for comparisons. “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu,” President Trump tweeted on March 9. “It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Experts including Fauci debunked the comparison. “The flu has a mortality of 0.1%,” he told Congress on March 11. “This has a mortality rate of 10 times that.” But the analogy — intended to make an extraordinary threat look like ordinary — persists.
In reality, the coronavirus has no clear analogue. “The normal mechanisms we’re using to predict things don’t work,” said Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University College London who studies human motivation. “Actually, nothing else that has happened before in our lifetimes is relevant or helpful here.”
Many contemporary disaster mantras emerged in past wars, and they often contained a kernel of a consumerist message. At the outset of World War I, British politicians such as Winston Churchill encouraged “business as usual,” suggesting that both companies and citizens should continue to behave just as they did in peacetime. But the status quo eventually gave way to a coordinated defense effort when the state realized it would need to control manufacturing, trade, and commerce to win the war.
Twenty years later, in World War II, the British government coined “Keep Calm and Carry On” to boost morale in anticipation of a Nazi invasion. But it quickly pulped the test posters; other campaigns about courage in a crisis provoked public outcry as many people found the messages tone-deaf. After half a century, however, the phrase was exhumed — in part as a message to those weathering the Great Recession.
In times of crisis, Americans have borrowed English idioms, and coined a few of their own homespun mottos for personal and economic perseverance. During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made an enemy of an emotion, telling the public, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush gave this famed aphorism a consumerist spin when he told airline employees, “When [the terrorists] struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear. And one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It’s to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.”
“Get down to Disney World” was probably never meant to apply to the people who actually traveled to the Magic Kingdom in March amid public health warnings to avoid crowds. (Disney eventually closed its theme parks to visitors, though some reopenings are imminent.) But that didn’t stop some politicians from applying this logic to the coronavirus. In a White House press briefing, President Trump said, “America will again and be soon open for business,” and later suggested relaxing guidelines by Easter. That jingoistic outlook quickly dissipated as the virus seemed to metastasize, killing more than 120,000 Americans and requiring social distancing to continue for months.
And Americans haven’t been the best socially distant citizens: Memorial Day weekend festivities served as a new catalyst for the spread of the virus, and many officials are desperate to reinstate or expand social distancing policies before the Fourth of July. At the Lake of the Ozarks, for example, a raucous pool party was later linked to multiple coronavirus infections. Alabama students reportedly threw parties attended by infected students that one local lawmaker has alleged were “Covid parties,” aimed at intentionally getting others sick.
“It’s almost like we don’t want the virus to win, so we’re going to go out drinking, go to parties, go out to the beach,” Wuthnow said. But these are risky responses when the enemy is not a person or a bad year for the stock market, but a virus — one that can be transmitted asymptomatically.
Humans are generally terrible at assessing risk. But it’s proven especially true in the case of the coronavirus. “It’s about our risk to others, and that might make it a little more difficult to understand,” said Cynthia Rohrbeck, an associate professor in clinical and community psychology at George Washington University. People are used to talking with their doctors about their personal health, but taking responsibility for the health of others comes up only infrequently, often in public discourse around smoking, drinking and driving, and getting vaccinated.
Our judgment could be clouded by optimism bias, the tendency to believe you are less likely than others to experience something negative. In late February, researchers polled 4,348 people in France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland and found half of them believed they were less likely to get the coronavirus than others, sans real evidence. Another poll, conducted in mid-March on more than 800 people from the US, the United Kingdom, and Germany, suggested this optimism was bolstered by people’s belief that they had fewer human interactions than their peers, making their risk of contracting the virus inherently lower.
When countries finally began to roll out isolation measures, they encountered additional obstacles. “One of the most important things for people is to have a sense that they are in control of their own life, that they have agency,” Sharot said. In a paper in The Lancet, researchers reviewed 24 past publications on the psychological effects of quarantine and found it can cause post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger.
But the desire for agency can have an ideological component, too. In China, the authoritarian government has wide latitude to control the behavior of its citizens. But in the United States, few Americans have experienced government-imposed restrictions on when they can go out and whom they can see.
Many politicians criticized the rules as an infringement on people’s freedom, not to mention a disaster for the economy. In March, Arizona state Rep. Anthony Kern (R) and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) both tweeted (and deleted) defiant photos from crowded restaurants. “We can’t all just shut ourselves and stay home,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “The economy has to move forward.” And even the president has refused to be photographed wearing a mask, underscoring the way protective face coverings have become a partisan lightning rod. Now, as states are seeing terrifying spikes in their coronavirus cases, some are reinstating the social distancing strategies they just rolled back.
“Me, personally, I just refuse to live my life in fear,” Katie Williams, the 30-year-old Las Vegas resident who went viral for her Red Robin tweet, told Vox in March. “As Americans, we typically do what we want. It’s kind of that attitude we’ve always had,” she added. “I think if we’re going to start pressuring people that they have to stay home, or publicly shaming them like pariahs, I think we’re just starting to lose a little bit of our sense of country and our sense of rights.”
I just went to a crowded Red Robin and I’m 30.
It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want.
— Katie Williams (@realkatiejow) March 14, 2020
Fairchild, the public health ethicist, said she understands these concerns. But there are other rights to consider. “As an individual, I have a right not to be infected by somebody who is not paying attention,” she said.
People may bristle at being told what to do — especially when American coronavirus quarantine strategies look superficially similar to those used by authoritarian nations such as China or Singapore. But Susan Michie, a health psychologist and the director of the Center for Behavior Change at the University College London, saw it another way: “We elect people to [make] decisions at a national level to look after ourselves. That’s not authoritarianism; that’s democracy.”
And officials are largely dependent on the public’s compliance in a crisis. “This is not something we are doing because we are the fun police,” an Australian official said in a press conference as he implored people to stay home in March. “This is about saving lives.” To convince people to cooperate, Michie said, politicians need to continue to communicate a clear sense of urgency, while providing support for everyone who is forced indoors. “We’re interconnected,” she said, and the coronavirus proves it.
Eleanor Cummins reports on the intersection of science and popular culture. She’s a former assistant editor at Popular Science and writes a newsletter about death. She previously wrote about the “death-positive generation” for The Highlight.
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