Many Americans have faced Covid by worshiping the Myth of the West. The western pioneers were self-sufficient, exercising maximum freedom to do what they wished, facing the world alone. In the same way, modern myth-followers demand their freedom to make COVID decisions alone. To be human is to be tribal—protecting my family, my people, my group. But the true pioneer is loyal to a tribe of one—himself.
Covid has called forth extraordinary acts of bravery and sacrifice, but it has also revealed the dark side of American individualism. People wish to be free to refuse masking, free to refuse vaccination. Like many teenagers, they want their freedom, but they also need, want, and sometimes demand community resources. The Myth of the West, the rugged pioneering spirit, works against these community-based ideals that are essential for responding to Covid.
Covid-19 reveals how people behave in plague time. Covid enters invisibly the houses of the poor as well as into kings’ houses —even the Queen of England got covid. No one can predict how Covid might affect a given person. Some have almost no symptoms, but some have long-term disabilities—exhaustion, breathing problems, loss of taste and smell—and some die.
Although Covid threatens all people, wealthier people can defend themselves much better than poor people can. Covid spreads faster in areas of high population density. If I have resources, I can escape and join those living in low-population density areas (single-family or suburban dwellings, rural dwellings). But many poorer people are not able to escape. Wealthier people have the freedom to shun public transportation. My private car is a steel container that insulates me from my community and protects me when I travel. It also gives me mobility—allows me to flee to my vacation home or drive to a safer area of low-density population. It makes it easy to get vaccinated. A friend of mine drove 150 miles to get the vaccine just as soon as it was available.
Even if I isolate, my own safety and welfare depend on what my community does. I am always influenced by the actions of others, endangered by them, or protected by them. My safety depends on what other people do. My individual safety, my freedoms, are only possible because I depend on others. I need my community to maintain the infrastructure so I can keep healthy, keep fed, keep mobile. Someone needs to maintain the electric lines. The Internet. The road system. The supply lines for all the stuff I buy and own. If my furnace or air conditioner falters, I need the HVAC specialist to come in and fix it. How maintain public order in plague time? My assault rifle is no help against Covid. In plague time, we need people willing to run risks to maintain this infrastructure. How will we get them to do this? How will we compensate them? My individual freedom is a luxury that can only be maintained by the support of others.
What are other people doing? Do people spread the virus or work to contain it? Do infected people voluntarily isolate themselves from healthy people? But if I isolate to protect myself, I also isolate from the most vulnerable people, from those who most need my help. Where will the helpers come from? In 1917, my own grandparents lost two boys to “the fever,” partly because they were isolated homesteaders in South Dakota who did not have community health support nearby.
The Myth of the West propelled bold individualists to displace indigenous peoples, then colonize and build a European nation from sea to shining sea. But Covid has revealed the limitations of this myth, and how desperately we need to work together with our whole community to defeat the greatest plague since 1917.