The pandemic has proven that the individual is not supreme

Our decades-long love affair with rugged independence has suddenly fallen away as populations throughout the democratic world surrendered individual liberties for the sake of the collective
With some glaring exceptions, people are wearing masks as a way to show compassion for others (Bridget Bennett/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters rally against a mask mandate, many showing support for US President Donald Trump, in Las Vegas, Nevada on August 22, 2020. - "On day one" of his own presidency, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said, he would implement a national COVID-19 plan and mandate mask wearing. (Bridget Bennett/AFP/Getty Images)

This has been a year of realizing that what we thought was solid ground beneath our collective feet was in fact a cliff that would crumble away with just a bit of natural erosion or one sharp blow. We reflected on 2020 to find truths, exploded. This is one of them. Read more about the year that changed everything »

If there’s one symbol we’ll remember from a year we’d rather forget, it’s the mask. That fabric first line of defence against the coronavirus. The unsmiling, unfrowning face we all presented to the world when in public. But more than it being the representation of our (concealed) stiff upper lips in the face of adversity, masks have come to represent the face of compassion, of care. The thin cloth veneer provides little health protection for one’s self. We wear them to protect co-workers, colleagues, friends and absolute strangers.

English poet John Donne’s observation that “no man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent” seems to be taking hold in Western culture, 397 years after Donne first wrote this meditation after recovering from serious illness. With some glaring, cantankerous, rally-prone exceptions, populations throughout the democratic world surrendered individual liberties for the sake of the collective by staying home for several months of the year, and limiting contact with friends and family for the rest of it. We bought into this idea even when it became clear the virus doesn’t seriously afflict most of us; we kept following public health dictums to protect the elderly and vulnerable among us, and to keep our public health systems from buckling under the massive burden pandemics can inflict on hospitals.

All of this has marked an abrupt break with a rising ethos in liberal democracies—a freedom-loving, don’t-tread-on-me (or tax me) spirit that became central to our public and personal lives over the past four decades. And whether from fear of the virus or clear-eyed pragmatism, it has happened with far less upheaval than anyone might have imagined.

OUR EDITORIAL: Looking at truths, exploded

Beyond lockdowns, capitalist democracies embraced sudden expansion of the economic safety net to unprecedented levels, supporting those forced into joblessness, or whose careers went on indefinite hold. Support for such measures was near-universal. Yes, ballooning deficit levels have many political leaders and observers tugging anxiously at their collars—and rightly so. And yes, fiscal hawks have placed their balanced-budget ambitions on hiatus. Yet many conservative leaders have worked—often at the urging of the private sector—to keep the commonweal from collapsing and pulling everything down with it.

In March, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in quarantine with a coronavirus infection that would soon send him to intensive care, he made a video urging Britons to stay home, protect the National Health Service and save lives. “One thing I think the coronavirus has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society,” Johnson said. It was one Conservative Party leader’s rebuke of another: in 1987, then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher remarked that “there is no such thing as society.”

While Thatcher supporters have argued the much-maligned declaration has been misconstrued as a call for ruthless individualism—that it really meant people taking responsibility to support themselves while caring for the needy—Johnson’s comment evoked a popular desire to prioritize the strength of everyone over a loose alliance of individuals.

Elsewhere, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed solidarity, collaboration and the “belief that every life and every person counts.” She spoke with the authority of someone who grew up in communist East Germany and was reluctantly locking down the free-market democracy she now rules. South Korean leaders likened the effort to running a national relay race that everyone participated in, notes University of British Columbia public policy professor Heidi Tworek in a study of health communication responses to the pandemic. B.C.’s widely lauded messaging stressed protection of society over that of the self, she observes; Ontario started with “pro-self” campaigns that emphasized distancing but ultimately shifted toward B.C.’s approach.

That collectivist message has overwhelming buy-in, according to a Leger poll in September. Eighty-seven per cent agreed that wearing masks is a civic duty because they protect others from the virus; only 21 per cent said requirements infringe on personal freedoms. Surveys find far greater levels of mask resistance in the United States, in line with the “rugged individualism” that has long defined American culture and has left it more exposed to the pandemic’s ravages.

Does this collectivist mindset last longer than the pandemic does? If it does, leaders could conceivably harness it to launch big fixes for woes the crisis has exposed and exacerbated, like wealth inequality and racial injustice. Then again, we might revert to our previous individualistic, freedom-loving, tax-loathing ways: consider that the period of solidarity during the Great War was followed by the hedonistic Roaring Twenties; that after the Depression and another, even more destructive war came the prosperous 1950s and the baby boomers’ retreat to suburbs and sedans.

Still, there is no shortage of crises to keep us bound together. Many environmentalists have called for a wartime-like societal effort to address climate change, the next deadly crisis barrelling toward us. The pandemic, they warn, has been a dress rehearsal for the longer-term challenge facing humanity. In January, Tom Oliver, an applied ecology professor at the University of Reading in England, released The Self Delusion, a book asserting a scientific and cultural need to stress our interconnectedness. It is his modest attempt, he says, to push back against the decades-long trends toward individualistic attitudes and environmental degradation. Months later, society was forced together, and largely chose to stay that way.

“If there is a silver lining, it helps people to move in that direction where they start to see themselves as part of a global community,” Oliver says. “They see that sense of responsibility beyond their little selves, toward a bigger sense of identity.”

14 things 2020 proved wrong

‘Democracy is destiny’

The worst system except for all the others has been under attack for years. Trump just made us notice.

‘The future is virtual’

The pandemic has made it clear in more ways than we would have thought to count: you actually need to be there

‘Rich countries can overcome’

The awful response to the pandemic put the final nail in the myth of liberal democracy’s pre-eminence

‘In a crisis, leaders will lead’

The job description is right in their title, but too many simply failed to show up for work

‘Women are winning at work’

The economic crisis spurred by the pandemic has unveiled inequalities and obstacles once thought a thing of the past

‘The individual is supreme’

Our decades-long love affair with rugged independence has suddenly fallen away

‘The stock market has meaning’

Long treated as a key economic indicator by many, it is now completely detached from how the economy is actually doing

‘Climate change can’t be stopped’

After decades of planet-threatening growth, emissions fell off a cliff. Environmentalists sense a turning point.

‘We value our seniors’

Decades of promises to improve the quality of life of elderly Canadians have gone unfulfilled

‘Kids are resilient’

Children’s ability to bounce back has been pushed to a breaking point, and exposed some ugly inequalities

‘Running errands is boring’

Rushing out to get milk was once the height of tedium. Today, it’s an anxiety-inducing thrill ride.

‘We need the gym’

The pandemic shutdown forced a reality check: for many, all that time spent in the gym was more luxury than necessity

‘Bureaucracy is slow’

The pandemic forced a culture shift on government, proving that red tape really can be cut

‘You can ignore racism’

Denying systemic racism is no longer tenable. But will the outrage of the past summer translate to substantive change?