American Individualism

Opinion writer Ozioma Mgbahurike discusses that the American ideology of individualism is harmful with the battle against COVID-19.

Let me get this out of the way. This piece isn’t a column meant to scapegoat Texas A&M students for the surge of cases in Brazos County. It’s not a new phenomenon in the media to blame young people for whatever ailments arise in our society and the pandemic has only fueled this narrative. I understand that it is easy to blame the younger generation for every problem on Earth, even though research clearly states young people possess no more fantasy of invincibility than older people. This exercise of playing the blame game is more harmful than helpful and it appears that we are stuck in this cycle again.

Politicians shifting a heavy load of the blame to the moral incompetence of young adults is irresponsible because not only are we relying on the self-discipline of a very young demographic, but we are also refusing to acknowledge that we haven’t had a national response to a national emergency. It appears that the complete dysfunction, disunity and distrust between our elected officials has powered the ideology of American individualism. At a certain point this was a fundamental part of our identity as Americans, and it is a reason why Americans have held onto the mythos of exceptionalism for so long. However, this ideology now appears to be our most significant roadblock to effective control of the pandemic. Although the best we can do at this particular moment is to utilize relatively simple measures like social distancing and self-quarantining to “flatten the curve”, our national response has been disappointing. The absence of clear federal guidelines has left Americans to fend for themselves and has led to countless numbers of deaths to COVID-19. Our failure to come together on the previously mentioned safety measures has made it impossible to organize a plan in which we all make sacrifices for the greater good.

America currently has more cases than any other country by a disheartening margin of at least two million due to our sense of individualism, resulting in citizens believing that any national requirement or sacrifice we need to make is an attack on our liberties. Other countries that appear to have the virus under control have deployed far more aggressive measures than anything done in this country. So what happens when an entire generation raised in this culture of individualism returns to campus in the fall after what can only be a fateful summer in terms of handling a pandemic? Well, to the surprise of almost no one — except for maybe the thousands of university administrators tasked with coming up with a plan for the fall semester — it turns out that setting guidelines without any form of aggressive enforcement won’t make the scheme effective at all. To borrow a quote from Anna Pogarcic, a senior at UNC and the editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel, "If the success of your plan relies on 18- to 24-year-olds being responsible, then maybe it's not a very good plan.”

A&M is one of the few universities that appear to have a handle on the pandemic due to its plans to provide free testing, contact tracing and random group testing. However, once you look at it through a critical lens, you’ll notice that we’re not far from joining the University of Notre Dame, Michigan State University and UNC-Chapel Hill as schools that had to pivot to remote learning within a few weeks of reopening. On Aug. 26 alone, 124 students self-reported positive cases of the virus were recorded on the A&M COVID-19 dashboard. These numbers should raise concerns about the effectiveness of the university’s guidelines. However, for reasons I can’t pinpoint, it looks as though the virus is the killer elephant in the room to which we should pay more attention. There is an immeasurable power dynamic between a university with a multi-billion dollar endowment and their 18 to 24-year-old adult students. It will be in the university’s best interest to curb its students' individualistic tendencies to provide a more secure and sustainable environment for all. There will most likely be objections that such aggressive tactics are worse than the coronavirus itself. However, we now have enough evidence that shows we don’t have any alternative to battling the pandemic except for everyone recognizing their role in stopping the virus’ spread.

American individualism has been beneficial in shaping our national identity. It is one of the reasons we became a nation in the first place. The motivation to get things done independently and the readiness to challenge what we deem unconstitutional are some of the foundations of this great country. However, we should be wary of not forgetting our fellow citizens whenever we embody the ideology of individualism. Suppose there is one thing that has been crystal clear from this pandemic. In that case, it’s that no matter how strongly our government responds, it will ultimately require collective individual sacrifice for our country’s good to defeat the virus.

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