There is a nationalistic misconception that the United States is “number one.” In at least one way we are: COVID-19 deaths. As cases increase during this chilly winter season, changes in personal behavior, and possibly regulation of behavior by governments or companies, are essential in mitigating the dangers of the present pandemic or future epidemics. However, we believe that COVID-19 prevention efforts that focus on individual behavior such as handwashing and physical distancing must be balanced with structural efforts such as increasing access to clean water, housing, employment, and safe and effective working conditions. An effective way to combat both the virus and disproportionate effects that the virus causes would be to adopt collectivist practices in society.
Every civilization enters into a social contract that frames the ways we act and prioritize decisions: as individuals (such as in the United States), as the collective in countries (like South Korea), or some mix of those forms (as in countries including Canada and France). Under the framework of collectivism, the individual is seen as subordinate to the community. In the U.S., individual vulnerability to risk is culturally privileged over community vulnerability to risk, when both should be addressed equally. An example of addressing both equally is mask wearing. We wear masks to protect others from getting sick, and we hope that others wear theirs to prevent us from getting sick. Asian countries, such as Taiwan and South Korea, have demonstrated these and other collectivist practices before COVID-19 and, as a result, have proven more effective at mitigating the disease.
We are embroiled in a global pandemic that disproportionately affects poor communities of color, and in the midst of a higher cultural consciousness of systemic inequities. A cultural shift to center collectivist thought and action not only would prove helpful in disease prevention, but also belongs in conversation with the Black Lives Matter movement. Collectivist models of thinking effectively target the needs of vulnerable populations including the sick, the disenfranchised, the systematically marginalized. Collectivist systems provide care, decentering the capitalist, individualist system, and focusing on how communities can work to be self-sufficient and uplift our own neighbors.
Community care can look like establishing a community fridge or drawing up action plans for interpersonal violence that don’t rely on calling police, particularly in poor communities of color that disproportionately experience violence at the hands of the authorities. It can look like mutual aid systems, in which people redistribute their wealth to those in need of funds. A redistribution of wealth would alleviate stress on poor community members by securing often expensive medical care and reducing stress of job loss due to illness. Community care looks like free public education with a radically revised curriculum to include things like health, wellness, and disease prevention. It could be free healthcare for all, without worry about access or quality. This logic extends to our care for the environment. The individualist, capitalist system is responsible for deforestation and pollution, which spurs on the spread of disease. If we reduce our consumption and adopt a more humane collectivist model, we can reduce our negative impact on the environment and the threat of illness.
A core function of the collectivist practice ideology is looking at the people and environment around you and tailoring your actions to fit their specific needs. It requires listening, patience, and commitment. We must look around and ask ourselves: “Who are my people? Why should I protect them? How can I protect them?” Ideally, this spans globally and the mindset of looking out for others is not limited to those in your immediate surroundings. But motivating your prevention strategies—wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, etc.—with a grounded desire to do good by your people and your community can ensure that everyone chooses to be careful. It is intrinsically human to want to belong to a collective. If we can transform that human need into a genuine desire to protect others, we can prevent and handle diseases now and in the future.
Daelle Coriolan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Luna Mac-Williams can be reached at email@example.com