Individual Responsibility Won’t Stop the Pandemic

This holiday season the politicians and the media are entirely focused on individual responsibility as the solution to the pandemic. We agree: individual choices matter. But, Democrats' exclusive focus on the individual is a convenient way to divert attention from the fact that the government has kept the economy open and refuses to take the necessary steps to keep us safe.
  • Kimberly Ann and Tatiana Cozzarelli | 
  • November 26, 2020
Photo: Dave's Midtown

On November 21, CNN reported that the total number of COVID cases recorded in the United States since the outbreak of the disease had surpassed 12 million, “an increase of more than 1 million cases in less than a week.” In the space of that same week, more than 10,000 people died from the disease, “nearly double the weekly death toll of just a month ago.”

Across the country, the numbers are climbing faster than ever before,  and healthcare workers are yet again stretched to the breaking point. The strain is so acute that federal guidelines actually suggest relaxing the “return to work” requirements (such as a period of quarantine) for health care workers who test positive for the virus. In North Dakota, for instance, nurses who test positive but do not have any symptoms are being told to work despite their condition.  

As the virus continues to rage out of control, the government’s inaction has been nothing short of criminally negligent. The Trump administration, naturally, has never even considered issuing a nationwide stay-at-home order. But president-elect Joe Biden has already made it clear that he won’t do so either.  Gyms, restaurants, and many school districts continue to run business as usual despite the surge. People are still getting on packed buses and trains every morning and evening to get to and from work. In the nation’s hideously overstuffed prison system, which is essentially a massive network of superspreader sites, inmates are twice as likely as the general population to die from COVID, and politicians seem quite content to leave them to this fate — unless, of course, there is an opportunity to exploit inmates as slave labor for fighting fires or handling corpses

Meanwhile, Donald Trump and other ultra right-wing Republicans have attempted to stoke a culture war around the most basic way to protect ourselves from the pandemic — wearing a mask. But in the end, Republicans were more up front about the policy being pushed by Democrats and Republicans alike: it’s okay if workers die for the profits of capitalists. 

While both parties continue to push  for productivity during the pandemic, whatever the cost in human lives, the Democratic Party politicians have countered Trump’s culture war with a focus on personal responsibility.

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Take New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s message of individual blame in one of his Emmy award-winning conferences: “So, the restrictions work. And just to make it very simple, if you socially distance and you wore a mask and you were smart, none of this would be a problem. It’s all self-imposed. It’s all self-imposed. If you didn’t eat the cheesecake, you wouldn’t have a weight problem. It’s all self-imposed.” 

This is a horrendous message, and not just because of the ugly fat-shaming that Cuomo throws in at the end.

Somehow, it seems lost on the governor that the most likely victims of this cruel disease are and always have been workers who are given no choice but to put themselves and others at risk, day in and day out, because if they don’t go to work, they may lose not just their jobs, but everything they have. The number of people who insist on their “right” to put themselves and others at risk by refusing to wear masks in public is dwarfed into insignificance by the millions and millions of people who would gladly stay at home and stay safe if that were actually an option for them. The core problem isn’t that people are irresponsible, it is that the non-essential economy is still open. 

As Thanksgiving draws nearer, this focus on personal responsibility grows ever greater. While the economy remains open, putting millions of working class people at risk in their workplaces, the CDC guidelines for the holiday seem considerably more risk-averse: “the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with. Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu.”  But if these “gatherings with family and friends” increase the risk, what about the “gatherings” with dozens or even hundreds of strangers into which working people are forced every single day, in their commutes and in their workplaces? 

Make no mistake — we agree with the CDC’s guidelines. People should stay in and be as cautious as possible to prevent the spread of the virus. We think people should wear masks, socially distance and not sit down at the dinner table with grandma. And from the looks of it, Thanksgiving is going to spread COVID, although 61% of Americans changed Thanksgiving plans due to COVID. Personal choices certainly do matter. But, there is something seriously wrong with the politicians’ sole focus on individual responsibility. For one thing, it is all too often a convenient way of diverting attention from the government’s own responsibilities.

Take the letter written by seven governors entitled “Americans need to stay home this Thanksgiving.”  Despite the news of an upcoming vaccine, they say “it doesn’t mean we can let our guard down and loosen the safety measures we have made in our daily lives.”  They urge people to picture how hard it would be if loved ones’ “chairs were empty” next Thanksgiving. They end saying “Each and every one of us have a role to play in this fight… But we are up for this challenge. Let’s continue to listen to medical experts and do our part to protect the brave men and women on the front lines of this crisis. We will get through this together.”

In itself, this is all sound advice, yet the letter drips with cynicism. Again, where is the call to “listen to medical experts” when it comes to issuing stay-at-home orders to contain the spread of the disease? Take Ohio, where Mike DeWine is the governor. Too bad that Ohio’s schools have remained opened and resulted in 10,000 COVID cases. Or take Wisconsin, which has kept open meatpacking plants with almost no supervision or restrictions, which in June were responsible for the spread of 28% of COVID cases in the state. 

There are examples like this for every governor who signed the letter. 

It is clearly very convenient for the capitalist class to blame individuals for the spread of the pandemic. They can continue to insist on business as usual, force workers to go into unsafe workplaces to guarantee mass profits, and blame small social gatherings for the spread of the disease. 

A recent New York Times article explains that while most states don’t have detailed data of where the spread is occurring, “in states where a breakdown is available, long-term care facilities, food processing plants, prisons, health care settings, and restaurants and bars are still the leading sources of spread, the data suggest.” The article explains that in Colorado, only 81 cases were a result of social gatherings outside colleges. More than 4,000 were the result of prisons, 3,300 from colleges, 2,400 from assisted living facilities, and 450 from restaurants and bars.

“It seems like they’re passing off the responsibility for controlling the outbreak to individuals and individual choices,” said Ellie Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University. “A pandemic is more a failure of the system than the failure of individual choices.”

Capitalism has a long, sordid history of deploying spin doctors to dupe the public into believing that it is the duty of the individual, not the state at large, to maintain public health and safety. One does not have to look any further than the environment  and the fight against climate change. Without exception, the biggest contributors to all of these crises, then as now, were big industrial firms. In 2019, for instance, the Climate Accountability Institute reported that a mere 20 fossil fuel companies accounted for more than a third of the world’s total carbon emissions.Yet all too often, instead of talking about massive industrial-scale pollution, the focus by the government  is on recycling, shorter showers, and the individual use of plastic straws. Neoliberal corporate individualism strikes again. 

A focus on the individual can also give politicians the pretext to use the police to enforce policies. The hyper-policing of mask wearing and social distancing has already reared its ugly head, becoming the new stop-and-frisk. Maskless cops have been given free rein and ample excuses to criminalize Black and Brown communities. 

We have to be clear. Black and Brown people are dying from COVID at disproportionate rates. And the leading cause is not because they are personally irresponsible. It’s not because they didn’t wear a mask— and it’s likely not because of small gatherings either. It’s because people of color are disproportionately represented among essential workers who are not paid to work from home and are instead used as sacrificial lambs at the altar of capital. It’s also because communities of color suffer from environmental racism, which lead to a whole series of ailments including asthma. 

Since March, the working class has been given meager funds to sustain themselves during this crisis, in sharp contrast to the trillions given to Wall Street and large industries. Food bank lines continue to grow, so that in a time of feasting many instead face hunger. The economy remains open because the capitalist government wants it to remain open. The government continues to refuse to pay people to stay home, even though this would not only keep them safe as individuals, but would also do much to contain the spread of the virus. 

The sheer volume of sanctimonious public statements pleading with us to “stay at home for Thanksgiving” shows that politicians understand the key concepts, and are happy to make use of them when it suits their purposes. But given a choice between keeping us safe and keeping us working, there is no doubt which one they will choose. 

In the meantime, far from being “irresponsible” in large numbers, people are trying their best to stay safe. People are waiting for over 5 hours to get a rapid COVID test in cities across the country because after 9 months of a pandemic, testing and tracing still isn’t a regular fact of life. There are still testing shortages. And this has nothing to do with individual responsibility. The  State is responsible.

If it’s not safe to fly, the airports should be closed. If it’s not safe to gather, so should restaurants. And we can’t say this enough: people should be paid to stay home until it’s safe. And it’s healthcare workers, scientists and other workers who should be making those decisions based on science, not corporate profits. 

It should be clear that for the government, the operating principle is profits over people. The government does not work for the working class, it works for the capitalists. So they are doing their best to protect what they are paid to protect, capital. 

So yes, wear a mask. And no, it’s not a good idea to fly home to see family. Don’t organize big gatherings and please, take care of yourself and the people around you. But don’t for a second be fooled into thinking it’s an individual’s responsibility if Covid cases spike. The State is responsible, and right now they are fucking up. 

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Kimberly Ann

Kimberly Ann

Kimberly is an educator and writer for Left Voice
Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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