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SHIEKH: Balancing individualism, collectivism

Author headshot for Mustafa Sheikh
Even when the source of correct information is shoddy, such as President Donald J. Trump's White House Coronavirus Task Force, the people must uphold the collective good and listen to rare correct advice. – Photo by Gage Skidmore / Flickr

In one of my public health classes, I am learning about the ethics of public health in our society. In one of these lectures, my professor went over the dominant and secondary languages of our collective. Individualism is our dominant language and our second language is collectivism. 

The difference between these two is fairly simple: Individualism is about the rights and abilities of each individual person, while collectivism is about our place and responsibilities in our society. The fact is that these two ethical principles both are part of our nation. While individualism usually takes priority, that does not mean that we do not care and work toward collectivism as well.

Each person has to fulfill their responsibilities, to a reasonable standard, to their neighbors. This includes mowing the lawn and bringing the recycling bins in from the curb. Another responsibility that we have to our neighbor is to avoid getting them sick. Whether that illness is a cold or the plague, this is a constant responsibility that we have to keep for our friends, family and neighbors.

In a situation like the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, there are times where we are individuals and times where we are a collective. And of course there is overlap as well.

Part of the needed to work together is based on our economy, our jobs and our safety during times like these. Government programs like the Payment Protection Program, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and the stimulus checks are all good examples of collectivist action.

I met someone at a restaurant who told a story about their asthmatic, COVID-19 recovered father walking outside on the sidewalk in New York City without a mask on. Apparently someone screamed at them to wear a mask. Obviously, the person screaming was wrong to do so, because the behavior in question was not too dangerous and so it was not any of their business. Walking outside, socially distanced, is not a very risky behavior. 

Yet, the person screaming also had a bit of my respect. Enforcing the needs of the group can be tough. It is respectable, hearing that someone cares enough about their city to try to get people to follow the important rules. Though they may not have known the entire situation, or assessed the risk of exposure properly, they care enough about the pandemic to try. Trying one’s best is always something to respect.

It is concerning when so many people and so much noise works against the most effective public health interventions. Building and maintaining the habits necessary for stopping the spread of the virus can be difficult for each individual. For an entire population to learn these things as soon as it becomes necessary is even more difficult and impressive.

But, those voices that speak against interventions, not on the merit of their usefulness, but in a partisan, contrarian way, work to convince people to hurt their neighbors intentionally.

The tension between individualism and collectivism is similar to a tug of war most of the time. Neither side is really supposed to win, but it takes work to uphold both of these two ideas that are constantly at odds.

In a pandemic, though, these two also work together. If individuals are responsible, by wearing their masks, washing their hands, socially distancing and sanitizing, they benefit both themselves and their neighbor. The other side of that comes from the government, an organization that is built for the public safety and wellbeing. 

The government’s side is important as well. If the government stalls much-needed stimulus packages, for political reasons, then the people suffer unnecessarily. There are a number of times where the government failed to live up to its duties.

There is a long list of atrocities, including Operation COINTELPRO, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Project MKUltra and the Whiskey Rebellion. It is absolutely necessary to be the government’s oversight and to vote out the people who choose to profit over the people they are meant to serve.

But government oversight does not mean that we fail in our own duties to collectivism. If someone from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the White House Coronavirus Task Force tells you to wear a mask, because it is helpful and safe, we should wear the mask.

The very fact that the advice came from them should not be the only evidence for being unsafe and unsanitary. Government oversight should not mean that we neglect to follow the government’s lead when they are right. 

Government officials are people, human beings, and that often gets lost when we vilify them and their work. Just because we have good reason not to trust them does not mean that we should not allow ourselves to benefit when they actually, successfully serve the public

As individuals, we have to take care of ourselves, that is individualism. As individuals, we have mutual responsibilities to our neighbors, that is collectivism. The overlap is that the common goal of both ideologies, individualism and collectivism, is to keep everyone safe and healthy.

Our government has responsibilities to us and, as members of our society, we have duties in our government. There is overlap in these ideals as well, and we should not let ourselves miss the nuance simply due to distrust or partisanship.

The government is an organization. Like any other entity it is capable of tremendous good, given that it is well-checked and responsible for its actions.

Mustafa Sheikh is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy senior majoring in public health and minoring in biology. His column, "From the Mountaintop," runs on alternate Fridays.

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