Many people have never experienced in their lifetime a pandemic the scale of COVID-19, where our way of life has changed dramatically in response. We are required to self-quarantine and maintain social distancing, while prevented from going about our everyday lives.
This pandemic has also exposed a questionable side to humanity. Throughout the world, people are panic-buying items like hand sanitizers, toilet paper, and surgical masks to the point that shelves are completely emptied, not leaving enough for everyone. The mounts of hoarded toilet paper depict how during a time where people need to work together, many are only thinking about themselves. This raises the question: is this a flaw of individualism?
Individualism is a philosophical and social science term describing how individuals lead lives based on their self-interest. It also describes the belief that the individual should be free to do as they please. This is a key element in the liberal values that the West is usually associated with, as opposed to the idea of collectivism characteristic to non-Western society.
Individualism has been useful in many cases: it allows people to demand less government intervention and empowers people to choose their own ideological and political affiliations, amongst others. But as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, several fatal flaws of individualism have emerged.
There are two extreme cases of individualism that have emerged in light of the pandemic. First, some are so concerned with their own well-being that they neglect to think about that of others. The panic-buying and the hoarding of essential items that has ensued is a clear example of this.
Those who are not taking the pandemic seriously make up the other extreme. In mid-March, young people were out partying on beaches in Florida despite the warnings. Hollywood actress Evangeline Lilly said at one point that she “values freedom over her own life”, refusing to self-quarantine. Is this “freedom” and by extension, individualism, becoming a negative value?
This raises another question: should we be thinking in more communitarian terms instead of individualistic terms during crises? Communitarianism is the idea that the pursuit of shared goals takes precedence over the pursuit of individual goals. Since COVID-19 is a global pandemic that affects everyone, perhaps we should all be thinking as a community rather than as individuals. This would mean that people take precautions not only for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the rest of the population.
With quarantine and social distancing, it is true that some human rights, like the freedom of movement, are being affected. But is mobility more important than “flattening the curve”, so to speak? In order for the curve to be flattened, people need to limit their lifestyle in ways that would not have been deemed as acceptable in any other situation. As cliche as it sounds, desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures.
The virus has also shown that valuing individualism on an institutional level also has its flaws. We see this in the measures that have been taken by liberal, democratic countries like the United States and others in Europe, as opposed to more authoritarian states like China.
When the coronavirus started to present itself as a threat, China completely shut down Wuhan, the city in which the virus originated. They also sealed off cities and placed security guards on patrol. People were also arrested if they stepped outside their houses. However, in Western countries, it has been more difficult to quickly enact such measures, despite the warnings from China.
As the virus spreads further, however, Western countries have begun acting in a less individualistic manner as well. Recently, several states in the US and European governments have enforced lockdowns in order to prevent the spread of the virus. While this may seem as a violation of the very individualism the West values so dearly, it does show that individualism may not always be the best way for humanity to move forward.
It is true that the virtues of individualism should be valued, but when push comes to shove like during this COVID-19 pandemic, it is apparent that a more communitarian attitude can at times be vital for humanity. This pandemic illustrates that the world needs to take a different approach in the way in which society makes laws and deals with people. Perhaps this approach consists of valuing a communitarian outlook as much as individualism.