A brief, somber tribute to the White House recorded the day the United States passed the 500,000 coronavirus death mark. The country which has 4% of the planet’s population remains the record holder for the pandemic, with 20% of deaths and 25% of cases of infection.
These are frightening numbers for a wealthy country that won the Nobel Prizes in science and medicine. There is ample evidence that the decisions taken by Donald Trump a year ago sealed the fate of hundreds of thousands of deaths. In addition to obsessive re-election denial, the former president obstructed the actions of federal epidemiologists.
But there is an American cultural trait that predates Trump’s disastrous year as the head of the pandemic. It’s called “severe individualism,” a term coined by another catastrophic president, Herbert Hoover, who helped push the United States into the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Uncompromising individualism is an integral part of the mythology about the character of this republic. He was brought up by the story of the old west, with his lone cowboys, vigilantes on a lawless frontier. How many rascals caught in cell phone videos in 2020, terrifying supermarket customers in their refusal to keep their distance, do not live under the illusion of being John Wayne’s heirs?
John Wayne, the epitome of stern individualism that Hollywood has given us, would be the virus’s best friend. The actor killed in 1979 remains one of the most popular poster artists of Republican conservatism. But this Republican Party has returned to an anti-science activism that confuses individual freedom with the promotion of disease and death.
How to overcome a pandemic without sacrificing personal interests for the common good or following government decisions? One example is in the empty rural states of South Dakota and North Dakota, where the fight against the pandemic has been defined by “individual responsibility” and the refusal to require the use of masks in closed public places. The price of the John Wayne complex? North Dakota had the highest per capita infection rate in the world at the end of 2020 and South Dakota was not far behind.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who like Trump was born in New York but has better education, has attempted to shed the blame for pandemic mismanagement with the following pearl: British love for individual freedom is reportedly said to be prevented collective sacrifices and hampered measures such as mass testing and case tracking.
In addition to suggesting that the Germans or the French don’t like freedom, Boris spent like a tractor on one of the costliest reasons for the pride of the former imperial power: years of sacrifice, selflessness and public service under Nazi attacks during World War II.
Americans have also not faced a marked period of collective sacrifice since World War II, with adherence to the rationing of food, fuel and clothing. The women went to work in the defense industry and the volunteers collected raw materials for the military industrial effort. But there was a difference, the mobilization during WWII was led by the government.
Today, Joe Biden is walking on eggshells when he asks Americans for the meager sacrifice of wearing masks for a hundred days to prevent the deaths of his compatriots. The cowboy is now shooting himself.
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