Individualism vs. Collectivism in a Global Pandemic

There are currently over 13 million cases of coronavirus globally. The unprecedented pandemic has forced cities into lockdown, and caused an economic recession that is unparalleled in history. After months of lockdown and restrictions on movement, several cities are starting to reopen as cases begin to decline. But it seems that people are forgetting that the coronavirus is still a reality, and that many countries are already starting to experience second waves. Examples of such countries include Singapore, Iran, Germany and South Korea. People are demanding that governments should lift lockdown restrictions and are advocating for their freedom and human rights. Should governments listen? Is it right for people to be protesting for their freedom at this time? In my opinion, we should be worrying more about public safety instead of individual preferences, and treating this issue with the sensitivity and caution it deserves. 

People all over the world have recently started protesting for their freedom and undermining the dangers of the coronavirus. Coronavirus related demonstrations have been evident in Germany, Brazil, UK, Chile, and most prominently, the United States. According to David Wong, a protests expert in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, these protests fall under two categories. In one case, people are protesting for their freedom. In seeing a decline in coronavirus cases, it is easy to demand for lockdown restrictions to be raised. The second category revolves more around economic devastation. Hungry and unemployed citizens are taking to the streets to protest their frustrations. This article will focus primarily on the first category.

aljazeera.com “Majority in US disapprove of coronavirus protests: Poll”

Conspiracy theorists and protesters in the United States have garnered the most global attention. Towards the end of April, hundreds of people gathered at the Texas State Capitol building in Austin, to protest against coronavirus restrictions. They were carrying pro-Trump banners, American flags and signs referring to coronavirus efforts as “tyranny.” One woman held up a poster that said, “My body, my choice, Trump 2020.” Some were chanting, “We can’t breathe.” Hence, it is unsurprising that Texas has been experiencing new spikes in coronavirus cases, with record high daily cases of 7,000+ in early July. 

Similar protests are also evident in Palm Beach County in Florida. “I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear,” one Palm Beach resident told the Telegraph, “Things gotta breathe.” As the number of coronavirus cases are spiking in Florida, local governments are rushing to enact mandatory mask wearing measures. This has faced major backlash. In fact, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of four Palm Beach residents claiming that mandatory masks interfered with their“personal liberty, and constitutional rights.” Such protests are spreading like wildfire as people start to demand for individual liberties. However, it is important to recognize the risks of prioritizing individual freedoms during a global pandemic.

There are many inherent flaws and fallacies associated with the anti-coronavirus protests taking place in the United States. Firstly, many people believe that the lockdown orders are a violation of their freedom and human rights. But these restrictions are certainly legitimate in this case. According to the Human Rights Watch, the scale and severity of the coronavirus pandemic clearly rises to a level that could justify restrictions on certain rights, including limitations on the freedom of movement. Such limitations include travel restrictions, as almost every country in the world has imposed some sort of border control. This is solely to protect the population and prevent the spread of infection. The restrictions being put in place are, for the most part, lawful, necessary and proportionate. They are based on scientific evidence, respectful of human dignity, and subject to review. No government wants their nation to undergo an irreversible economic recession, so it is inevitable that they will be trying to reopen their economy as quickly but cautiously as possible. So long as restrictions are put in place, as advised by the WHO and the CDC, it is important that we abide by it. Individual preferences should not trump public safety in this case. 

Think about it through the ethical theory of utilitarianism, coined by 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of decisions and on achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people. An example to illustrate this is the classic Trolley Problem. Imagine there is a trolley heading toward a group of 5 people on the track. You are sitting in the control booth and have the ability to switch the trolley into another track, where there is only one person. If you switch the track, 1 person will die. If you do not, 5 people will die. What would you do? According to philosophy reports, most people in America and Britain say that 1 death is better than 5. This is an example of utilitarian reasoning, where the action that benefits more people (or causes less people to suffer) is chosen. 

Utilitarianism definitely plays a role in public policy, as governments are always trying to determine which course of actions will benefit the most people. Governments tend to serve as a gulf between individual and collective interests. It is time that the people taking part in the anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests begin to act in a more utilitarian manner. We should worry about collective safety at this time, as much as we should worry about our own. One person refusing to abide by lockdown restrictions and refusing to wear a mask could end up leading to a chain cycle of coronavirus infections. We are in the middle of a pandemic. What we do with our body affects others, not only because we can get infected, but because others can too. We must make decisions considering those around us. Arguing for individual liberties currently is counterproductive, because all parties involved (governments, local municipalities and citizens alike) must work together to stem the spread of coronavirus infections.

The second flaw revolves around the use of the phrase “my body, my choice,” during anti-mask protests, which is typically associated with the topic of abortion. However, what these protestors do not realise is that choosing to have an abortion is very different from choosing to wear a mask in public. The former is an entirely personal decision that does not affect the health of anyone around you. It is not a public health issue, while the coronavirus absolutely is. Protesters are trying to somehow twist the abortion rhetoric to defend their right to choose whether or not they want to get a mask. A more fitting phrase could be, “Your infection, my choice!” If you do not wear a mask, someone else can get severely infected. It is important to put aside personal preferences and focus on the science as wearing a mask significantly lowers the risk of coronavirus infection. It is not a mere coincidence that cases are spiking in Texas and Florida. 

nytimes.com “How Abortion, Guns and Church Closings Made Coronavirus a Culture War”

The other common phrase being used against the wearing of face masks is, “I can’t breathe.” It is highly insensitive to use this phrase after the recent death of George Floyd, and also because of the complex history of the Black Lives Matter movement. Several African-American individuals who have been killed by the police, including Javier Ambler, Elijah Mclain, and Eric Garner, used these words before they died. Using their last words and the words of several BLM chants, is simply not appropriate in this particular context. It is also important to note that some aspects of comfort must be given up for the collective good. If health workers are able to wear masks for 8 hours straight to treat COVID-19 patients, an average person should be able to at least wear one when they go outside for about 30 minutes.

Let us consider more about why these protests may be occuring. One obvious reason could be that people are starting to tire of the coronavirus restrictions and want to return back to their normal lives. But another big reason is the twisted political rhetoric in the United States. President Donald Trump himself has been hesitant to mandate masks, and has pointed out 19 times, according to the Washington Post, that the virus will simply “go away.” Although there is now a sudden change in his tone in that he is now, “all for masks,” his rhetoric has heavily influenced people. Many believe that if the President is not worried about wearing masks, they do not need to be either. President Trump has even suggested that wearing a mask could be seen as a political statement against him, turning this medical issue into a political one. Democratic leaders have been more vocal about the importance of face masks, with the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, even encouraging everyone to wear them. Conversely, several Republican leaders, most notably the President himself, are opposed to this. This has caused a divide in the United States, although mask wearing should not be a political and partisan issue. It is a medical issue.

As coronavirus restrictions start to ease all over the world, many countries may experience a second wave if proper health restrictions are not followed. A change must be made at the micro and the macro level. A change of mindset is required for those who believe that coronavirus infringes on their personal liberties. The restrictions being put in place in countries is to stem the spread of the virus, and hence is justifiable in the case of such a deadly pandemic. People must realise that their actions affect the lives of everyone around them. A change of mindset is required for policy makers and leaders as well. Their statements must reflect the advice of healthcare workers, and the reality of the situation in their respective countries. We must hold our leaders accountable during this difficult time, and demand that they give us proper information so that we can make informed decisions. Coronavirus should not be political, and cause more division than unity in a nation. As the internet celebrity doctor, Dr. Mikhail Varshavski pointed out, “we should not be using coronavirus as a chess piece in a political game.” Political bias as well as individual preferences, must be set aside. We must focus on collective interests during this pandemic and make safe decisions to get through this together.


SOURCES:

Cerabino, Frank. “Cerabino: Florida’s COVID-19 Anti-Mask Protesters Need to Abort Their Messaging.” The Palm Beach Post, The Palm Beach Post, 3 July 2020, www.palmbeachpost.com/news/20200703/cerabino-floridarsquos-covid-19-anti-mask-protesters-need-to-abort-their-messaging.

“How Did Face Masks Become a Political Issue in America?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 June 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/29/face-masks-us-politics-coronavirus.

“Human Rights Dimensions of COVID-19 Response.” Human Rights Watch, 9 July 2020, http://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/19/human-rights-dimensions-covid-19-response.

Jankowski, Philip. “Texas Coronavirus Spike Continues: 7,555 New Cases, Hospitalizations at All-Time High.” Statesman, Austin American-Statesman, 4 July 2020, http://www.statesman.com/news/20200703/texas-coronavirus-spike-continues-7555-new-cases-hospitalizations-at-all-time-high.

“My Body, My Choice” Doesn’t Apply to Coronavirus, http://www.vice.com/en_us/article/4agz9n/my-body-my-choice-doesnt-apply-to-coronavirus-covid19.

Philosophy. “Utilitarianism.” Philosophy Terms, 25 Oct. 2018, philosophyterms.com/utilitarianism/.

Ward, Alex. “Anti-Lockdown Protests Aren’t Just an American Thing. They’re a Global Phenomenon.” Vox, Vox, 20 May 2020, http://www.vox.com/2020/5/20/21263919/anti-lockdown-protests-coronavirus-germany-brazil-uk-chile.


Priyasha Chakravarti

Writer, editor, poet

Priyasha is a 17 year old rising senior in International School Manila, Philippines. She is Indian, and moved to the Philippines when she was 8 years old. She is very excited to be a writer, poet and editor for the Zenerations Junior Team! She is also part of youth run organisations Genzenith, Project Puno and Bye Bye Plastic Bags, all of which she writes for. Priyasha is also the co-founder of a service and literary initiative called Inside Out. Aside from building on her passions for writing and global issues, she loves to play badminton, sing, participate in Model United Nations, and help out her community in any way she can. 

Published by Priyasha Chakravarti

Priyasha is a rising senior studying in the Philippines. She is very excited to be a high school ambassador for IBlieve because she wants to build a sense of community and help others. She is very passionate about politics and economics. In her free time, she loves to play badminton, sing and write!

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