Come On, You Live in a Society

Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

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Last weekend was beautiful, and Brooklyn was teeming. People packed the bars. They filled up the restaurants, a few coffee shops, the little stores that sell home goods and succulents. Gentrifying neighborhoods looked as they always do: a consumer’s paradise, unbothered and undeterred. I think everyone was having a good time, but I could not tell you for certain. I glimpsed them from sidewalks, heard them distantly from in front of my building. You wouldn’t have known it from all the brunches and happy hours, but a pandemic was brewing, and people had been asked to stay indoors.

Mayor Bill de Blasio finally closed the bars and ordered the restaurants to shift to takeout late on Sunday morning, after a full weekend of St. Patrick’s Day drinking concluded. Before he did, the elderly and the immunocompromised had to rely on the capacity of others to feel shame. Many felt none this weekend, as far as I could tell. Some combination of ignorance and self-centeredness sent them out of their houses and into the world. In the process, they took public spaces away from people like me.

For the last two weeks and change, I’ve isolated myself at home. Minus the occasional quest to the grocery store or some other nearby shop, I have watched novel coronavirus circle the city from the vantage of my couch. This is not merely anxiety on my part: I have a hereditary red blood cell disease that causes a rare form of anemia. In normal times, my condition sounds a bit worse than it usually is; thanks to the glories of modern medicine, I will live a long and surly life. I am, however, at slightly elevated risk for COVID-19 complications. Nobody seems to know exactly what the virus would do to me, except that I’d probably get sicker than the average 32-year-old woman. I would obviously prefer to avoid this. At the risk of sounding maudlin, my condition can be painful, which is a bummer. But because I’m young and otherwise healthy, my chances of dying from COVID-19 don’t appear to be high, either.

I suppose I will eventually find out, for certain. Short of walling myself into my apartment, anchoress-style, I’ll still be exposed to other people — on the sidewalks, during my walks around the neighborhood, or at home, when my partner returns from some essential errand. He washes his hands, but does everyone else? I’m dependent, still, on other people and their habits. It’s not a comfortable feeling.

The choices of others force me to restrict myself more than my condition strictly dictates. My ability to keep alive some echo of my former habits relies on other people doing what they are supposed to do. If you only go out for essentials, I can go out for essentials too. Everyone needs sunlight, but for me it’s more than a source of vitamin D. I get jaundice, and sunlight helps keep me from looking like a banana peel. If you limit your time out-of-doors, I can stop by a local coffee shop. Maybe I could have worked somewhere that isn’t my living room before the city told us all to stay inside. With the bars and restaurants closed and a ban on large gatherings in place, the city is safer for me and for my sick and elderly neighbors, too.

But I resent the city’s lackadaisical response. I fear its consequences, which will be amplified by President Trump’s slow-moving response to the pandemic. The real extent of the crisis might not be apparent for weeks yet, when it could strain health-care resources that are already unfit to meet the challenges at hand. What happens if I need a hospital bed a month from now? Will I even be able to get one? There aren’t enough respirators, we hear; not enough tests. Not enough generosity, either, as people hoard hand sanitizer and raid the pricier grocery stores.

New York City’s response to COVID-19 is in the end only symptomatic of other, broader failures. We see a collective failure, as politicians balk at proposals that would control public behavior and which would permanently expand the welfare state to both mitigate today’s suffering and to prepare for future crises. We see, too, a series of individual failures, as people fail to take common-sense measures that would help prevent a bigger outbreak. These failures are related. They reinforce each other, and they each stem from much older problems.

American politicians long ago shifted the burden of safeguarding the public from the government to individuals. Call it personal responsibility, call it deficit reduction, call it whatever you want; the consequences are the same no matter which label we use. The absence of any seriously developed health-care infrastructure abandons people to muddle through on their own. The absence of major labor protections forces people to work sick and will financially ruin anyone whose employers don’t offer paid leave. The preeminent message coming out of D.C. — and this is not a new trend; it is far older than the Trump presidency — tells people that they’re ultimately responsible for themselves. We are conditioned to think of ourselves as individual consumers first and as interconnected members of society second. Movements that hold the opposite view tend to be ruthlessly broken down and suppressed at worst, or at best, dismissed as the fantastical longings of childish adults. As I wandered around my neighborhood, looking at all the places I couldn’t enter, I remembered the old Industrial Workers of the World slogan: An injury to one is an injury to all.

The true danger of America’s hyperindividualist tendency has been clear to people with chronic illness for a long time. To have any sort of ailment in this country is to know that your well-being depends on the whims of your peers. You pin your hopes on their voting preferences, their charity, in that aforementioned capacity for shame. You are usually disappointed, and while it is tempting and even occasionally useful to blame individual acts of stupidity for making life more complicated, shame has its limitations. Your true enemy isn’t the 24-year-old at happy hour. You are up against a passive brand of eugenics, embedded in the structure of our health-care system and reinforced by consumer politics that lionize the individual at the expense of the group. The state doesn’t euthanize you. Doctors don’t forcibly sterilize you — at least, not anymore. Instead, you learn that you are an expense to insure and to treat. Your needs drain the resources of the public: You are taking more out than you are putting in. The message might not be audible to those who don’t have to listen for it, but it’s there. It would be easier, this subtext whispers, if the sick and the elderly did not exist.

But exist we do. To stay out now, against all evidence-based recommendations, is to reveal oneself to be small-hearted and cruel, if not stupid. The greater danger, though, isn’t just that an individual here or there fails to learn any compassion from this crisis. America has hit an inflection point. It will emerge from this calamity a more generous nation, or it will become more atomized and more callous than it had been before. I don’t know which direction we’ll take. I would feel better, perhaps, if people were kinder, more sensible, if they thought of themselves as small parts of a bigger organism. I’m not sure that national change is possible until individuals change their minds — and habits. If you can stay home, then stay home, you selfish assholes. Use your time to tell your member of Congress that you want universal paid leave for workers less fortunate than you; that you want Medicare for All, and now, not later. There will be other outbreaks, other disasters, in years to come. And nobody stays young and healthy forever.

America’s Hyperindividualism Will Destroy Us If We Let It