Rugged individualism plagues America’s pandemic response

Summer Merkle | Cartoonist

Wednesday marks the first official day of Gov. Greg Abbott’s lifting of Texas’ mask mandate and capacity limitations at businesses across the state. Please, for the love of all that is holy, continue to wear your masks.

With more and more vaccines on the way and the White House saying we will have enough vaccines available for every American adult by the end of May, we are so incredibly close to this nightmare ending. Why the governor decided to lift the mask mandate with these COVID-19 vaccines just a few months away, no one can be sure.

The governor’s reasoning, of course, was that “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate,” which on the surface, is a statement a lot of people may agree with. Except that, right now, there is a deadly pandemic that is killing people and crippling our health care system. People do, in fact, need to be told what to do by public health officials in order to save lives and minimize the risk of illness and long-term health issues that arise as a result of COVID-19, and government mandates seem to be the most effective way to ensure the public acts safely.

Additionally, it seems ludicrous to expect retail and restaurant workers, whose employers have decided to maintain masking policies, to have the authority and efficacy of a statewide mandate when trying to enforce masking to their customers. It makes it especially difficult when they have to confront belligerent customers who, for some reason or another, can’t be bothered to put a small piece of cloth over their faces. Keep in mind that these are the same workers who are already young, frequently disrespected by customers and woefully underpaid even in a pandemic-free world.

All of this ties back into this uniquely American, and particularly Texan, ideal of rugged individualism. It crops up all over our politics and culture. It’s one of the reasons why we are the only country of the 36 currently classified as “developed” by the United Nations — that is without guaranteed, government-funded health care. It’s one of the reasons why last month, Texans discovered that we have our own electric grid separate from the rest of the country, because we wanted independence and less federal regulation. And it’s also one of the reasons why there seems to be this “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality and hatred of social safety nets across the nation.

Perhaps, too, the GOP position of lax masking and their attacks of public health officials stems from their consistent vilification of science, which also comes into play in their climate change policies (or rather, lack thereof). When the science shows that masking quite literally saves lives, it is mind-boggling that a whole class of politicians — who are supposed to be public servants — would not use the power that has been granted to them by the people to save those lives.

The arrogance of GOP politicians, as well as a large swath of the general population, in refusing to put a tiny piece of cloth over their face comes down to this idea that we are responsible only for ourselves. In other words, everyone else has to deal with the consequences of one person’s decision, regardless of its impact on the general public. This worldview necessitates that we must allow anyone to make whatever choice they’d like for the sake of this “freedom” that only applies to the reckless and requires the responsible to lock themselves in their homes.

People who oppose mask mandates frequently talk about this idea of personal choice, that if you want to wear a mask then you are free to do so, but everyone can make that choice for themselves. Again, this sounds reasonable until it’s put into context with science that says one person’s mask doesn’t protect them, but instead it primarily protects the people around them and vice versa.

Think of it in the same way as drunk driving. Intoxicated driving is not only a risk for the driver, but also for everyone else on the road. In the same way that the answer is not to let drunk drivers have free reign on the roads because the rest of us have the “choice” to just stay home, the answer to masking is not to let anti-maskers make whatever decisions they would like at the expense of everyone else.

In the instance of masking and the pandemic, this sweeping, hyper-individualist ideology is deadly. In other instances, it frees people from the responsibility of caring for their neighbors and community.

Quite frankly, we are creatures who were not created to be completely independent. Humanity benefits from society, collective action, community and interdependence, and it’s sickening to watch as people push against that innate piece of who we are, especially since it’s a large piece of what makes the human experience so great. If stark individualism is the price of this so-called “freedom,” why would we want it in the first place?