Comparing Western culture’s rugged individualism, America being the extremist example, versus the communitarian values of Asian societies is an overdone trope among cultural writers. I can’t believe I haven’t waddled into these waters. Just because it is a stereotype doesn’t mean it’s untrue.
I’ve watched with dismay Western countries response to COVID-19. Each seeming to fail, or occasionally succeed, along predictable cultural lines. The slowness of Italy and Spain to get their gregarious street life locked down. What is either without its cafes, alfresco restaurants, and street fairs? In the early days of the lock down getting their citizens to self-isolate was like trying to force cockroaches to enter your carefully placed roach motels—they run everywhere, and do everything, but lock themselves in. Meanwhile Germans reacted like a mechanical metronome. Canadians sheepishly followed authority. All according to Hoyle.
As might be expected—the Americans went nuts, though again, along predictable lines. Admittedly, their response was hampered by poor leadership and institutions that have been gutted, but i’m just talking here about individual reactions, after people [slowly] began believing the entire world wasn’t engaging crisis actors to play an elaborate hoax aimed at discrediting President Trump. [Jeee-sus].
One of the first, most predictably American responses to the epidemic was to buy firearms, and hoard ammunition. Presumably that’s the default setting for any mass crisis. There is really only one logical reason for this. You’re not planning to protect yourself by shooting the virus out of the air. No. It only makes sense if you’re preparing to shoot your neighbors to protect your toilet paper stash.
America is arguably the most individualistically oriented Western society, and so provides a particularly extreme example of something that has been extant throughout the West’s response to the coronavirus—being concerned about individual needs before community. A lot of the poor response to COVID-19 comes down to our philosophy of rugged individualism.
I don’t need to do social-distancing. I’m young and healthy. I won’t get this thing, and if I do I’ll recover quickly. Let’s go party on the beach. Florida. Spring Break, Dudes! If I get the virus and leave a trail of death and destruction behind me, that doesn’t seem as important as my enjoying this beer. The thousands who made the pilgrimage to South Florida displayed, and sometimes verbalized, a stunning disregard for the welfare of others.
Governments aggravated the situation by asking citizens to take individual responsibility for their actions, while they kept everything open. It’s a very mixed message: You should social-distance, but if you decide not to, please enjoy our bars, eateries, and clubs. The ethos of rugged individualism extends into government—our most communitarian institution.
Largely the necessity of individually sacrificing for the community’s welfare seems to have been accepted in the West. But, the tendency to individualism still shows itself in little ways.
I had this conversation with a Taiwanese colleague: “Why don’t foreigners wear face masks?” I gave the normal Western response that surgical masks don’t protect you from the virus. She replied, “I know the mask doesn’t protect you. Still, why wouldn’t you wear it?” It protects others from your possibly virus-laden spit.
Good point. Why wouldn’t I?