Why Many Americans Fail the COVID-19 Test

We may be too used to getting what we want and too loath to serve others.

Posted Jul 09, 2020

The reopening of the U.S. economy was accompanied by recent alarming increases in COVID-19 cases, raising questions about what is going wrong. 

There is plenty of blame to assign in America's tragic failure to get the pandemic under control, including testing problems, and contract tracing failures. But perhaps it is time to look in the mirror as well.

America, despite having the best medical scientists in the world, has ranked near the bottom of the league of developed countries in getting a grip on the pandemic (with only Sweden doing worse in terms of death rate). While glaring mistakes were made by the WHO, and the CDC, states, and the executive branch, the reopening debacle may be largely on the public.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, for Tomorrow We Die

Many Americans seem to have interpreted the reopening of the economy as an all-clear signal. In fact, the coronavirus had gone nowhere and there were tens of thousands of new cases each day.

Even so, we beheld people attending crowded bars without masks or social distancing. Large crowds showed up at Florida's beaches, throwing caution to the winds like students on spring break.

As a counterpart to this exhibition of riotous living, we can cite the very different demeanor of countries that brought their epidemics under control — from China to Ireland.

In China, there are virtually no new cases for months but the Chinese Communist Party presented itself to the public with each of its members wearing face masks. While this sort of rigid conformity may be chilling to people in free countries, it may nevertheless represent the kind of behavior that stifles the pandemic as much as it stifles freedom.

In Ireland, a very slow, disciplined return to normality was practiced as citizens were initially restricted to movement to within three kilometres (approximately two miles) of their homes. Police were granted temporary emergency powers to enforce these restrictions.

Beaches were closed, for example, and police stopped motorists suspected of heading for the beach to check their car trunks for beach paraphernalia.

Obedience to Authority

Despite early message confusion from the CDC, most public health experts believe that the simplest measure to cut down the infection rate is for everyone to wear a mask in public.

That is simple and intuitive enough for all to understand. Yet many states do not have a legal requirement to wear masks. Why not?

While masks are an important tool in containing the pandemic, and while legal requirements to wear them are effective in gaining compliance, there is a surprising reticence about imposing mask requirements in public.

There are at least two plausible reasons for inaction. First, mask-wearing has been turned into a political litmus test such that noncompliance may be a badge of conservative views and a sign of loyalty to the maskless President.

The second reason involves fear of public defiance in this political environment. Effective leaders may avoid giving orders that they know will not be obeyed.

Meanwhile, other countries that have controlled their epidemics gaze in puzzled astonishment at what is happening in the U.S.

Getting people to wear masks for the public good is a simple problem, but the concept of public good seems to have decayed in an age preoccupied with mindless consumption and unbridled self-indulgence. We are used to being served and may have lost the desire to serve the public good.

Wishing that the pandemic would all go away, many are behaving as though it were gone already. This is a time for genuine patriotism, the kind that considers the interest of the broader community. It is definitely not the time for heading out to bars, hosting parties, or going to the beach.