Individualism and Collectivism in Response to Social Breakdown

(crossposted at IU Sociology Quarantine Project)

On Friday’s episode of the PBS News Hour, David Brooks recalled the 1918 influenza epidemic and why it failed to leave a mark on the American public . According to Brooks, people were simply ashamed. The death toll in the United States alone topped 600,000, and Americans were embarrassed by their failure to help one another: their individualistic responses reflected selfishness rather than altruistic sacrifice. As a consequence, Brooks argued, the epidemic did not weigh heavily on the collective psyche once it was over; in fact, it was strategically forgotten.

Compare this scenario with the response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Following the attacks, millions of Americans developed a powerful sense of social solidarity, a feeling of collective effervescence that can only come from shared tragedy.

What explains the disparity between the 1918 influenza epidemic and the attacks of September 11? And which of these two scenarios are we seeing now, with the coronavirus?

A key distinction between the 1918 epidemic and the terrorist attacks is the time horizon associated with those events. The attacks on September 11 occurred on just one day, and while the events of that morning led to a palpable fear and insecurity which lasted for many months, Americans were not aware of any immediate threat to their lives. With the 1918 epidemic—and with the coronavirus pandemic of 2020—the threat is ongoing, producing a sense of fear but also the opportunity to normalize that fear over the course of many weeks.

September 11 was instant and cataclysmic: a shattering of the social order. The Spanish flu, meanwhile, was horrifying but easier to acclimate to, like the frog that fails to perceive its fate until the water is already boiling. This, I believe, is the situation we find ourselves in with respect to COVID-19: as we shut ourselves in our homes and self-quarantine, waiting for the virus to abate, we almost miss the unprecedented nature of what we are experiencing.

When change is slow, it is easier to cling to one’s habits of individualism and self-protection rather than collectivism and self-sacrifice. We have witnessed these habits over the last few weeks, as customers flood Costco and Amazon, buying up the last N95 respirator masks and the last bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfectant, products that the average American doesn’t need but healthcare providers desperately do. We feel the panic, but because the pandemic is slow-moving (or seems that way) and long-lasting (the peak is not expected for another six weeks), we grasp it as an individual problem to escape, rather than a social problem to mitigate.

We are all too happy to lend a hand in response to a short-term crisis, as Donald Trump, Mike Bloomberg, and every billionaire in New York claims to have done following 9/11. We are less willing to sacrifice our own well-being when the danger is ongoing, and the resources finite. The “spirit of sacrifice and abnegation” that Durkheim praised over a century ago can only last so long—for hours and days, certainly, but not for weeks and months.

Perhaps I am being too cynical. After all, this week we saw hundreds of Italians singing together from the balconies of their quarantined buildings, a moving act of solidarity that has captured international attention. Chinese employees have been working around the clock to produce enough masks for the global demand, and millions were donated by foreign governments to China’s Hubei province just a few months prior. And of course, there are small acts of kindness that we fail to see—the delivery of groceries to elderly neighbors too scared to leave the house, the donation of free online resources to individuals who would normally be charged (I’m looking at you, Italian Pornhub).

Still, Americans at least, are only so willing to give of ourselves and to make sacrifices over the long term. That may change as the crisis becomes more severe and the need for collective action more pressing. So please, if you’re reading this: keep buying that toilet paper and those bottles of Purell, but give them to someone who really needs them. Consider donating to your local food shelter, or any other organization that helps the most vulnerable, because those needs are ongoing and will last even beyond the pandemic.