Stop Blaming Individuals for the Spread of Covid and Start Blaming the Government Response

By presenting collective, structural crises as separate, individual problems with separate, individualized solutions, the government abdicates its responsibility to meaningfully intervene.

Joel Bleifuss August 24, 2020

An anti-mask protester holds up a sign in front of the Ohio Statehouse during a right-wing protest on July 18 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images)

Future his­to­ri­ans will study how the Trump admin­is­tra­tion failed to sum­mon the nation­al will to con­tain the pan­dem­ic, as done in oth­er, more func­tion­al democ­ra­cies. They will parse how the pres­i­dent, Repub­li­can gov­er­nors and their bleat­ing friends at Fox News infect­ed the coun­try with mis­in­for­ma­tion about Covid-19. They will count the thou­sands of Amer­i­cans ush­ered into an ear­ly grave, and like­ly puz­zle over the debate about wear­ing a mask. Accord­ing to Robert Red­field, direc­tor of the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, if every­one wore a mask, the virus would be con­tained in four to six weeks.

Anti-maskers wrap their reasoning in a delusional web of individual rights, independence from the state, and the magical positive thinking that anyone can triumph over adversity if they have the will.

Anti-maskers wrap their rea­son­ing in a delu­sion­al web of indi­vid­ual rights, inde­pen­dence from the state, and the mag­i­cal pos­i­tive think­ing that any­one can tri­umph over adver­si­ty if they have the will. So how should we pro­tect our­selves from breath­ing the aerosolized spit­tle of these Typhoid Marys?

Appeals to per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty have proven not to work. States should man­date that peo­ple must wear masks in all build­ings and in out­door spaces that don’t per­mit social dis­tanc­ing. A July 22 Politico/​Morning Con­sult poll found that 86 per­cent of Democ­rats — but only 58 per­cent of Repub­li­cans — sup­port a mask-wear­ing mandate.

The dif­fer­ing atti­tudes toward masks reflect two world­views: one col­lec­tive, pro­tec­tive and gen­er­ous; the oth­er, more self-focused and suspicious.

Left out of this mask-wear­ing debate is a nod to the fact that the social and eco­nom­ic wreck­age the pan­dem­ic has wrought, along with oth­er plagues upon our house — inequal­i­ty, racism and cli­mate change — can­not be con­tained by peo­ple act­ing alone. The sit­u­a­tion is sim­i­lar to recy­cling, which, as cur­rent­ly prac­ticed, fails to address attacks on Earth’s envi­ron­ment in a sys­temic way: At best, recy­cling cre­ates envi­ron­men­tal aware­ness; at worst, it lulls us into a com­pla­cen­cy that pre­vents us from demand­ing nec­es­sary, large-scale pol­i­cy changes.

By pre­sent­ing col­lec­tive, struc­tur­al crises as sep­a­rate, indi­vid­ual prob­lems with sep­a­rate, indi­vid­u­al­ized solu­tions, the gov­ern­ment abdi­cates its respon­si­bil­i­ty to mean­ing­ful­ly intervene.

The pres­sure to reopen the econ­o­my comes from the busi­ness sec­tor and from work­ing peo­ple who face penury. Axios reports that Forbes Edi­tor-in-Chief Steve Forbes and Club for Growth founder Stephen Moore lob­bied Trump to reject any Covid-19 leg­is­la­tion that would extend CARES Act fed­er­al unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, which expired in July. Repub­li­cans are try­ing to lit­er­al­ly starve the Amer­i­can peo­ple into join­ing their push for a hasty (and dan­ger­ous) reopen­ing; hav­ing no alter­na­tive, many peo­ple are.

Coun­ter­ing this push is a patch­work of ever-chang­ing exec­u­tive orders from Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nors and may­ors try­ing to thread the nee­dle between eco­nom­ic ruin and viral spread. But what good is stay­ing home when your rent depends on you going to work?

In the same way we indi­vid­u­al­ly wear masks to pro­tect oth­ers, we can col­lec­tive­ly demand that our gov­ern­ment pro­vide high-qual­i­ty pub­lic goods to the Amer­i­can peo­ple. But today, because Democ­rats already con­trol the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, we must demand House lead­ers present to the Amer­i­can pub­lic what a capa­ble and active gov­ern­ment could look like. Democ­rats should use every ounce of their con­sid­er­able lever­age to ensure pan­dem­ic relief includes the pay­check guar­an­tees pro­posed by Rep. Prami­la Jaya­pal (D‑Wash.), a co-chair of the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus; an exten­sion of enhanced unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits; resources for local test­ing and con­tact trac­ing; $2,000 per month for every per­son 16 and old­er as pro­posed by Reps. Tim Ryan (D‑Ohio) and Ro Khan­na (D‑Calif.); and evic­tion mora­to­ri­ums and rent can­cel­la­tion pro­grams to avoid up to 23 mil­lion peo­ple los­ing their homes by Sep­tem­ber 30.

If their plans die in the Sen­ate, so be it. They will have at least shown what a capa­ble and active gov­ern­ment could look like — a gov­ern­ment that treats the indi­vid­ual crises faced by each of us as the urgent col­lec­tive respon­si­bil­i­ty of us all.

Joel Blei­fuss, a for­mer direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-Colum­bia, is the edi­tor & pub­lish­er of In These Times, where he has worked since Octo­ber 1986.

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