One Year Later; Were the collective tradeoffs worth it?

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

America recently hit the 500,000 deaths milestone, leaving us to grapple with the question of how we got here. In the beginning of the pandemic half a million deaths seemed incomprehensible. It still seems that many Americans haven’t grasped that it was our actions, individually and collectively, that contributed to this horrific milestone.

I remember the beginning of the pandemic when everything shut down. I imagined that this one time in our society we would put the “we” before “me”. Quickly, I was reminded that as a country we will take any issue that could bring us together, such as a public health crisis, and use it as an opportunity to turn against each other for our own narrow purposes. As a positive psychology practitioner I know that our subconscious and conscious values drive our behavior. I should have known that we would continue our destructive pattern of believing in over reliance of self to the detriment of the whole.

If you were watching the news as they interviewed people in airports last Christmas you might have heard this common sentiment,

“I haven’t seen my family all year. I am just not willing to sacrifice missing this holiday because of this virus. It has already taken so much away from me.”

This is a good example of both an individual and collective tradeoff.

As a society, we have decided that the tradeoff of saving lives is not worth the sacrifice and inconvenience we experience as individuals. Just like deciding between climbing the stairs or taking the escalator we often make a decision subconsciously weighing if it is worth it to us. Every day, we make minimal tradeoffs like this. They do not have monumental impacts on our lives. There are many times where we have to make much bigger, riskier tradeoffs. Do you take that dream job across the country if it means uprooting your child who is finishing up their last year as a senior in high school? Do you put a parent in assisted living farther away or do you have them come live with you and uproot pieces of your own stability?

These are examples of tradeoffs we make on an individual level that mostly influence ourselves and those around us. We also make tradeoffs that impact those we don’t even know. Collectively, we have made tradeoffs during Covid that affect people we do not know and those we love.

As a society, each time we go against the science we weigh, “Is it worth it?”

Our societal values as Americans are individualism, personal freedom and “pulling oneself up by your bootstraps.” Our individual behaviors are influenced by our collective values. What “I” want is more important than protecting others, even the ones closest to me. Although individualism might not be your primary value it is part of the cultural contract we adhere to as Americans. Any inkling of collectivism, caring for others, in our current political landscape is scoffed at and has people screaming, “Socialism!”

In March 2021 it is clear that who we were a year ago, kind, compassionate and caring, was fleeting. These are only shared values when I thought “I” was at risk. This could not have been demonstrated more clearly than when news broke that the communities most devastated by the virus were our most vulnerable populations such as elders and communities of color. Our government decided that reviving the economy was worth more than preventing deaths. Regardless of how we felt about the administration many individuals agreed, eating in restaurants and going to their gym was more important to them than students and teachers safely returning to in person schooling. We did not want a pandemic to inconvenience the lifestyle we are accustomed to. “I have the right to do what I want, when I want, no matter the cost to others” could be America’s motto.

A pandemic could have brought out the best in us. It could have emphasized our shared humanity. Instead, it fully displayed that we are a country of individuals with leadership set on maintaining the status quo and creating policies that undermine collective response to national issues. Truly caring for others in a meaningful way such as distributing monthly checks and aid to small businesses is seen as radical. It goes against our values of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps.

The response to the pandemic is a catastrophic reminder that sacrificing each other at the altar of individualism is not working for us.

Leora Viega Rifkin has a master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. In her spare time you can find her writing about Positive Citizenship and well-being.



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