As COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, spreads in the United States, it is becoming clear that America’s individualistic framework is deeply unsuited to coping with an infectious pandemic. Right now, one of the most important things Americans can do is deploy measures like social distancing and self-quarantining, even if they do not feel sick and are not at risk of the worst effects of the disease, in order to “flatten the curve” (epidemiologists’ term for slowing down the natural progression of an outbreak). This requires a radical shift in Americans’ thinking from an individual-first to a communitarian ethos—and it is not a shift that is coming easily to most, especially in the absence of clear federal guidelines.
This month, along with about 8,000 other writers, I was supposed to fly to San Antonio for an annual conference sponsored by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. I had decided early on not to go, mainly because I had already been in touch with many virologists and epidemiologists (I’m writing a book about chronic illness in the United States) who’d been calling for proactive social distancing since February. I watched on social media as colleagues weighed their decision, and was struck by the fact that so many were discussing whether to go based on how they perceived risk to themselves; some even pointed out that the danger was “only” to the elderly or people with preexisting conditions. Others subtly shamed those who were expressing concern. They joked about “freak-outs” and “germaphobes.”