The health of American individualism

Coronavirus response and national protests highlight fractured US policies

Katie Botkin is the editor-in-chief of MultiLingual magazine. She grew up in a deeply religious US microculture, and spent early parts of 2020 in Asia.

Katie Botkin headshot

Katie Botkin

Katie Botkin headshot

Katie Botkin

Katie Botkin is the editor-in-chief of MultiLingual magazine. She grew up in a deeply religious US microculture, and spent early parts of 2020 in Asia.


n mid-April of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended for the first time that Americans wear masks in public to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. In the process of making the announcement, President Trump commented that he would not be wearing one. “I just don’t want to wear one myself,” he told the nation. In June, he additionally commented to the Wall Street Journal that Americans wore masks to “signal disapproval of him.”

The history of 2020 is one of preventative measures such as masks, and of culture. China, a country of 1.4 billion people, was the first to report cases of Covid-19, with infections spreading to other parts of Asia soon after. South Korea appeared to be hit hardest after China: on February 19, there were 58 confirmed cases in South Korea; by February 27, there were 1,766 confirmed cases. The country acted swiftly, instituting drive-through testing bankrolled by its socialized medical system, and tracing the contact of infected individuals through smartphone technology, among other things.

In Seoul’s Incheon airport February 27, announcements in Korean and English encouraged people to wash their hands and report any suspicious symptoms. Nearly every person in the airport wore a face mask — manufactured or hand-sewn — to stop the occasional sneeze from launching droplets onto their neighbors. All the bare-faced people in the airport were conspicuously Western.

In Seattle the same day, several people had just been confirmed ill with Covid-19 due to community spread. However, the caution of Incheon was nowhere to be found in Sea-Tac airport. US citizens crowded close in line, maskless, to pass through immigration. The pressing question: had they been to China in the past two weeks? A quick no, a flip through the passport to confirm this, and they were nodded past.

Two days later, the first Covid-19 death on US soil was reported.

East and Southeast Asian countries have seen some of the slowest rises of Covid-19, despite hosting some of the most populous cities in the world. But these countries, like much of Asia, are community-conscious, and culturally collectivist.

The study of collectivism was popularized by Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory, developed by Geert Hofstede in 1980. Hofstede plotted out societies according to different cultural principles in six categories. One category involved a continuum spanning two principles: collectivism and individualism. Japan, China, Singapore and South Korea are more collectivist; the United States, on the other hand, is highly individualistic. People in the United States tend to favor independence for the individual more often, and cultures such as South Korea tend to favor what is collectively best for everyone. Whether a country is more collectivist or more individualistic has implications for the way business is done — and the way pandemics are handled.

For example, face masks on the Tokyo subway are a normal part of life, not regulated to times of pandemic. If you have a cold any day of the year, you’re expected to wear a face mask to keep your fellow passengers safe.

Masks are an overt, built-in health strategy in many Asian countries where spread has been slow — and have been since at least January. When paired with good hygiene, face masks can limit the spread of a droplet-based virus. This is true even when the virus can technically still pass through the mask. Back in the Seoul airport in February, almost no one was wearing N95 masks. The masks were lower-grade, but still effective, partly because everyone was wearing them.

Sneezes and coughs from infected individuals are largely contained in face masks, and masks keep people from unconsciously touching their nose and mouth after brushing against infected surfaces. Moreover, any mask will filter out at least some of the virus. In a study published in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, researchers found that homemade masks “significantly reduced the number of microorganisms expelled by volunteers.”

In fact, these Cambridge University researchers testing household products as ad hoc mask materials discovered that a mask sewn from a double layer of dishtowels was as effective as a surgical mask in capturing viral particles similar to the novel coronavirus. However, the researchers’ final numbers recommended the less effective, but more breathable, use of masks made of cotton t-shirts or antimicrobial sheets. This is because a mask is only good if you’re willing to wear it. In most situations involving laypeople practicing social distancing, a comfortable mask with a good seal will be effective — as long as you wash it (and yourself) after each use.

But this is where collectivism comes in. In order to significantly slow the spread of a droplet-based virus, everyone has to wear well-fitting masks. Everyone has to practice good hygiene and treat germs as a common enemy that crosses all social, racial and economic boundaries. Research from UC Berkley and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology concluded that wearing masks can cut Covid-19 case incidence by 80%.

Peter Brevick, head coach of Washington State University men’s rowing team, started wearing a mask in April when he went to the grocery store or passed people on the street. “I want to do my part,” he said. He hasn’t seen many other people wearing masks in his relatively small town, however. The aversion to masks is “an American thing,” in his opinion.

In contrast to American habits, collectivism assumes that if one person does not have the resources for a mask, that person should still have one. This is currently Japanese policy; the Japanese government mailed cloth masks to each household in an effort to combat the virus. And as early as January, security was handing out masks to travelers in the Incheon airport if they were not already wearing one.

Collectivism does not stop with masks, however. Collective societies believe that if one person is infected, that puts all of society at risk, so the economically sound choice is to test aggressively — and foot the bill so the choice is not between paying rent and buying a test to see if you’re sick.

Although the impact of viruses on various nations is obviously multifaceted, the collectivist approach to pandemics seems to be working. Since February 27, South Korea has gone from 1,766 reported cases to 14,438 as of June 22, with a per capita death rate of 5 per million. In the same time period, the United States has shot to the top of the world’s caseload and stayed there, with a per capita death rate of 370 per million. The US has burgeoned from a handful of confirmed cases to almost 2.4 million. This is well over double the amount of the second-highest caseload in the world.

The approach the US has taken is patchwork. Each state is different, and each state — and medical establishment within the state — has had to scramble for tests, and to supply itself according to its heightened need for critical healthcare equipment. Clinics even found their supplies delayed and confiscated by federal agencies, with no explanation as to why. Across the board, US policy for the first months of the pandemic were overtly anti-mask for the general public: masks were needed for healthcare professionals, so laypeople were encouraged to stop buying them.

And as Covid-19 swept the United States, an interesting cultural phenomenon came into play, particularly among a sector of politically right-leaning individuals. This was true not only with masks, but with any larger attempt to curb the spread of the virus. Requirements to wear masks into stores were seen as a threat to personal freedom; contact tracing of infected individuals was actively fought against as government overreach; and vaccine research was widely touted by conspiracy theorists as some kind of sinister plot. Protesters turned out with signs reading “Give me liberty or give me death,” in some cases storming state capitols to insist on reopening the economy. For many, the federal one-time $1,200 per person stimulus payment did little to counteract lost jobs and looming bills.

On May 25, against this backdrop, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, in an arrest allegedly involving the use of a counterfeit $20 bill. For many, it was the final straw. Without jobs, and after months of little direction from national and state leaders, people took to the streets in protest of police brutality. The police response in many cities was captured on video by protesters: militarized riot lines spraying tear gas and firing rubber bullets. For many, the police response solidified the obvious need for change, and some glaring inconsistencies in the myth of American freedom.

Protesters tended to fall on the left-leaning spectrum, and wore masks. “Being at protests with thousands of people masked up and looking out for each other felt 3000x safer than just going for an average grocery run with the virus truthers and ‘don’t let the virus sense fear’ weirdos,” an individual identifying as klon peags noted on Twitter.