Taking in the news, we are bombarded by the coronavirus, and our nation seems in the grip of an uncontrollable fear. Out in the streets, in schools, in restaurants, in stores, the nation seems to move on as it always does. Where is the truth — are we in the midst of a crisis or is there nothing to worry about? The truth is, I’m sure, somewhere in the middle. Some of the fear is because the parameters of the disease are unknown. Public health officials are still working to establish contagion and fatality rates for the disease — how many other people an infected person is likely to infect and how likely an infected person is to die. And the fatality rates vary widely by age and preexisting condition.
What is undeniable is that this virus, like any crisis, is putting a strain on our systems, and it is in times of stress and strain that you see the true nature of those systems. Are we a society that provides medical care for all of our people? Or do we leave everyone’s medical care to the choices of their employers and to their own level of wealth? Are we a society that provides sick leave for all people, so that they can care for themselves and their loved ones and slow the spread of disease? Or do we allow each company to decide on sick leave for itself, forcing some people to work when it would be better for their health and that of others for them to stay home? Are we a society that keeps our elderly members close so we can learn from and care for them as they age? Or do we shove them into nursing homes where they live near other old and sick people and where disease can quickly pass from vulnerable resident to vulnerable resident?
Every society fits somewhere along the continuum of individualism to collectivism. And we have made choices that push U.S. society toward extreme individualism. We do not provide medical care or sick leave. We do not care for our elderly members. We establish only very minimal baselines of care for our poorest people, even our poorest children.
I hope and believe that we will weather this crisis with minimal deaths here in our nation. And I hold in my mind and heart that many others around the world have been and will be impacted through illness and death to a great degree. But I wish we would learn — the people of our nation individually and the people of the world collectively — that we cannot address the existential threats we face as individuals. As humans, we have evolved to exist as individuals and to live in societies. We cannot tackle COVID-19, climate change, poverty, white supremacy, and any of our other massive challenges by acting alone. We cannot choose ourselves. We must choose one another.
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