On December 24, the Central Hospital of Wuhan sent a fluid sample from an unresolved clinical case to be sequenced by Vision Medicals, a private company specializing in sequencing analysis. Three days later, the company came back to the hospital with news of a new kind of coronavirus.1 Over the new year and into January, the world began to prepare for the possibility of an epidemic in China.
It was not until January 20 that President Xi Jinping would make his first official statement on the matter.
On March 11, with 114 countries reporting 118,000 cases of the virus and nearly 4,300 deaths, the World Health Organization officially declared the world was in the midst of a global pandemic.
While the early mishandling of the virus by China is a topic that warrants an examination all its own, the mishandling of the coronavirus in the United States is in a separate league of complete and total ineptitude. But rather than retread the details and politics of this colossal screw-up (how big a role partisan politics played in the scale of this pandemic cannot be overstated), I would instead like to focus on how the unique American perspective on individual freedom and personal liberty made the visceral anger towards stay-at-home ordinances and mask mandates by the American public entirely predictable.
First, we need to examine the birth of America’s brand of freedom that seems so distinct to the country. The signing of the Bill of Rights in 1791 made explicit through the First Amendment the “unalienable Rights” and freedoms of all men introduced in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This idea that “all men” were in fact individual citizens of a country with their own opinions, thoughts, and rights was a radical proposition in the 18th century. The most prominent supporter of this philosophy was Thomas Jefferson* and with his election to the presidency in 1800, the country would experience a “Republican Revolution” that cemented these values in American society.2
Jeffersonian America was a complete rejection of the monarchial hierarchies of Europe that could seemingly be found in all areas of life, from the parent-child relationship, to art, to the structure of government. The ideals of republican egalitarianism attempted to flatten these hierarchal structures and advocated for an individual’s freedom to think for themselves, meaning that ordinary Americans’ ideas and opinions came to be considered “as accurate as the knowledge of experts.”3
For medicine specifically, this freedom of ideas meant that one did not need to be a trained doctor to run a clinic or hospital, that anything anyone said was deemed credible and that folk remedies and “hoaxes of various kinds” which promised cures for any sort of sickness “flourished.” Even physicians of the time like Dr. Benjamin Rush were constantly looking for ways to make medicine more egalitarian and understandable to the common man, which in Rush’s case led him to tout – without scientific evidence – that there was only one source of disease from which all ailments, both physical and mental, were brought forth: fever.3
Look around America today and you can see echoes of this mentality: one of the core arguments of the anti-vaccination movement that has continued to gain popularity in recent years is that the person most qualified to dictate one’s healthcare is the individual – not the doctor.4 Even Steve Jobs, one of the richest and most influential people in the tech industry at the time of his death in 2011, initially rejected traditional cancer treatment in favor of alternative methods he personally believed would be more effective.5
Clearly the republican philosophy of freedom of individual ideas developed in the late 18th early 19th century still holds strong in modern times. With freedom being enshrined in the founding documents of the country, this should come as no surprise. Nor should it be surprising that the majority of Americans view the U.S. as having the “best/above average” individual freedoms in the world, as shown below in a 2018 poll by Gallup.
This devotion to individual freedom has most likely bred America’s hyper-individualistic culture, as demonstrated in the late social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s measure of Individualism – seen below compared to the other four countries that make up the Top 5 largest economies in the world by GDP.
The combination of a hyper-individualistic society with a culture that above all else values personal freedom leads to Americans being highly sensitive to anything that threatens their sense of self and way of living. In a survey conducted by Harris Poll/Purple Project, 92% of Americans surveyed believed that their individual freedoms were under siege.6 As individual freedom is entirely personal, it feels prone to being eroded as the culture, environment, and status quo around oneself changes.
And while most changes to the status quo take time, every so often there is something that comes around which changes the culture in an instant. With the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the United States was faced with a challenge that would cut to the core of America’s devotion to personal freedom and individualism.
As the pandemic started ravaging communities, the government at both the local and state levels were hesitant to take strong action with the introduction of stay-at-home orders and mask mandates. Despite there being nearly 10,000 cases in the U.S. and urging from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as of March 18 no single state had yet to issue a stay-at-home order. Only three weeks later on April 7, the number of U.S. cases totaled nearly 400,000. Not less than two weeks later, Americans had not only already begun to venture out against stay-at-home orders, but protest against them.7
Compare this to Germany which as of March 18 had roughly the same number of confirmed cases as the United States, but which ordered one of the strictest stay-at-home orders in Europe and as a result had one of the most successful handlings of the pandemic.8 This despite the fact that Germany also had spates of protests against their own lockdown. But the participants in these protests skewed heavily conspiratorial, citing things like 5G mobile networks, and anti-vaccination as their main concerns.9
Like the unique perspective of freedom in America, the vitriol against the stay-at-home orders in the states were also unique in their messaging. While many online derided the protesters who carried signs demanding a haircut or to dine in at a restaurant, looking at images of the protests show an overwhelming amount of signage that reference a violation of individual freedoms as established in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Like Germany, there were also protesters who cited conspiracy theories, but the majority seemed to understand the severity of the coronavirus while at the same time rejecting the government-issued lockdowns.
Meagan O’Rourke, editor of the The Yale Review, posits that because Americans are “addicted to the concept of individual responsibility”, there is a “culture of averting [one’s] eyes from other people’s physical vulnerability.”10 That is to say, Americans are prone to ignore necessary action for the good for society if said action is inconvenient to the self. Putting this into the context of the images above, you can almost hear these protesters saying, “if someone catches the coronavirus because of me, it’s not my responsibility – they should have been more careful.”
The tricky thing about a country which values individualism and personal freedom to the degree that America does while at the same time having these rights enshrined in the country’s founding documents is that almost anything can be construed as an infringement on that individuality and personal freedom. Logically, this leads to the situation where, what to one person is an exercise of individual rights is to another a violation of their own individual rights. Every year the courts at the local, state, and federal level take on hundreds of cases which address exactly this issue, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on 119 cases involving First Amendment rights since the 2000 term.11
And frankly, the American anti-lockdown protesters – however ignorant they may look to the average person who cares about the good of broader society – are actually relatively smart in their messaging. As Floyd Abrams, visiting lecturer at Yale Law School and John Langford, counsel at Project Democracy, lay out in the New York Times, the protestors are “protected under the First Amendment” and would be supported in the Supreme Court were a case to make it there.12
So considering that these protests are a feature of American society and not a bug, is there hope for Americans to become less individualistic and prioritize the health of their fellow citizen as the pandemic continues? This is something that we cannot yet say for sure, and how the pandemic plays out will greatly influence the response of the country and the public.
However, there is one thing that can be said with certainty: the commitment to individual freedom established by the Founding Fathers and consistently upheld by the courts over the last 240 years will never cease to be one of the most valued aspects of American society.
Let’s just hope there’s still a society left to celebrate these freedoms once the pandemic is finally over.
*It goes without saying that when Jefferson wrote the famous line “all men are created equal”, neither women nor the enslaved were a part of this vision. However, the line would inspire those left out in his original vision to establish their “equal place in American society.”13
- Yu, Gao, et al. “Tracing the New Coronavirus gene sequencing: when did the alarm sound.” Caixin (in Chinese). 27 Feb. 2020. Web. 14 July 2020.
- Wood, Gordon S. “The Jeffersonian Revolution of 1800.” Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. Omaha, NE: Legal Classics Library, 2014. Print.
- Wood, Gordon S. “A World Within Themselves.” Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. Omaha, NE: Legal Classics Library, 2014. 725-28. Print.
- Solis, Marie. “It’s Misleading to Say “My Body, My Choice” About Vaccines.” Vice. 19 June 2019. Web. 14 July 2020.
- Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.
- “92% of Americans Think Their Basic Rights Are Being Threatened, New Poll Shows.” The Harris Poll. 17 Dec. 2019. Web. 12 July 2020.
- Shaver, Katherine. “‘Quarantine Fatigue’: Researchers Find More Americans Venturing out against Coronavirus Stay-at-home Orders.” The Washington Post. 25 Apr. 2020. Web. 12 July 2020.
- Spahn, Jens. “How Germany Contained the Coronavirus.” The Japan Times. 25 May 2020. Web. 14 July 2020.
- Ehl, David. “How Are Germany’s Coronavirus Protests Different?” DW. 14 May 2020. Web. 12 July 2020.
- O’Rourke, Meghan. “The Shift Americans Must Make to Fight the Coronavirus.” The Atlantic. 12 Mar. 2020. Web. 12 July 2020.
- “Supreme Court Cases.” Freedom Forum Institute. Web. 13 July 2020.
- Abrams, Floyd, and John Langford. “The Right of the People to Protest Lockdown.” The New York Times. 19 May 2020. Web. 14 July 2020.
- Gordon-Reed, Annette. “What Thomas Jefferson Really Believed About Equality.” Time. 20 Feb. 2020. Web. 14 July 2020.