Consider the Collective

The world is in a furor over the COVID-19. The supermarket shelves are emptying. The pundits and presidents are exhorting. The numbers are growing.

At some point in the future, we can debate — with the benefit of hind sight — the effectiveness of all this chatter. We can share our concerns or praise for the institutions responsible for protecting people during crises like these. We can philosophize on how an increasingly interconnected world makes us all simultaneously more alive and more vulnerable.

Right now, however, is time for a conversation on how we approach this crisis — from an individualized or collective mindset. I would argue that we would do well by to embrace a collective, public health approach to our thinking around this issue. So much of the chatter in the world is about “How do I avoid getting/treat coronavirus?” That is fundamentally the wrong question.

In this world of viral infection — and indeed of viral ideas — it is the collective that matters. Our behaviors — washing our hands, staying away from public places, wearing a mask, etc. — should be performed for the good of the collective, not solely for our good. As a healthy middle-aged man, my risk of corona virus death is pretty low, but my capability to spread a virus to a neighbor, coworker, or stranger with more health vulnerabilities is great.

This is the same challenge that I present when people argue against the flu shot — and complain “I got the flu shot one year, and then got the flu.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the reason for getting a flu shot. Yes, we would all personally like to avoid the symptoms that accompany a viral infection, but the reason the shot is widely recommended is to prevent the spread of the virus across the population. It is a collective goal.

Whether we like it or not, we are part of an interconnected web that is more diverse and multi-faceted than ever. As citizens of that global order, we are required — not only to buy up all the hand sanitizer that Wal-Mart can hold to protect my family — but to consider the collective. This is a great opportunity to challenge our thinking and critically assess the ways we see this crisis portrayed in the media and in our personal conversations. If we can embrace this collective mindset more fully, it has incredible ramifications — not only for our ability to fight the threat of this (and the next) pandemic, but for the way we build a world more broadly that reflects justice, opportunity, and well-being.

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