As I sit here reading headlines about the 2020 election in the United States, trying to avoid the cacophony that American democracy has become, I also continue to closely follow the relentless progress of COVID-19 cases and deaths. The United States now garners new records for cases every day, and deaths are near all-time highs as well. It is no exaggeration to say, “We’re Number One!”
It is hard not to be perplexed about the COVID situation in the U.S. A country with such an advanced scientific and health care community should be better equipped to control the spread of the virus. We do understand certain aspects of the virus. It is deadly. It spreads easily, especially in cool, dry, closed-in spaces. People can have the virus, not show any symptoms, and infect others who might die. Wearing a mask and keeping distant from others helps to mitigate its transmission. The virus originated in China.
Even in China, a country without nearly the widely dispersed and sophisticated medical system of the United States, COVID-19 cases are at an extremely low level. Yesterday China, a country with more than 3 times the population of the U.S. reported 33 cases and no deaths. As an educator it is hard not to miss legions of Chinese students returning home to China because their parents fear for the safety of their children in the United States. So why has the United States been unable to control the virus as successfully as China?
Are Americans more susceptible to the disease? Biological differences can explain some different minor health variations among humans, but medical researchers have not proven that virus transmission is one of them. All humans are vulnerable to receiving viruses from other humans. Are Americans less intelligent that the Chinese? Among the myriad indicators that we might choose to dispute such a point is the success of Americans in winning a high percentage of Nobel Prizes. Are American humans more inherently selfish than their Chinese counterparts, more willing to risk the safety of others for personal convenience? Experience tells us the human traits are not specific to any one ethnic or national group.
So is it something about the culture of the United States that makes us less able to combat COVID-19? Is there something about the way Americans behave, believe and interact that explains our lack of success? We passionately cherish freedom; does that value make it more difficult for us to respond to a pandemic? China determinedly restricted its citizens’ freedom in the spring, they controlled the virus and now have much more freedom of movement than U.S. citizens. Sometimes people do not realize that freedom requires order. Mayhem and chaos cause people to hide and restrict their movements involuntarily and less able to feel free.
Another obvious aspect of American culture and society is its relative wealth. Wealth allows people more choice and a greater chance and expectation of achieving goals. Does this wealth make it less likely that we Americans will delay gratification? Does it make self-discipline harder to foster within ourselves? Do freedom and wealth combined with our technical mastery of the natural world allow us to get our way so often that sacrificing for the common good becomes too heavy a burden? Has the word “sacrifice” disappeared from the American lexicon? Then again, China has wealth though not as widely dispersed as in the U.S., and it is only more recently acquired. Like freedom it is not yet in their cultural DNA.
So if the difference between China’s success and the U.S.’s failure cannot be accounted for at the human or cultural level, is there some individual whose behavior is responsible for America’s poor response to COVID-19? In the United States the one person with significant influence surrounding health practices this year is President Donald Trump. Besides denying the existence of the virus the president has criticized the wearing of masks and the use of social distancing as preventative measures. In fact he has mocked others for their adherence to such measures. Has President Trump led others to believe that COVID-19 did not merit a serious response? Have some of those people paid for their loyalty with their lives? We do know that political leaders in China have taken a very different course in combating the virus.
Whether it is at the cultural or personal level, as an American citizen, it is disturbing to watch the incessant march of the virus’ effect in this country. To bear witness to individual behavior that jeopardizes the health and safety of relatives and neighbors and friends shocks the conscience. We used to be a country that responded to challenges like COVID-19 with, “We can!”, not “We can’t”! Evidently China can and has responded. Why can’t we?