The Root - March 19, 2020

When I was a little girl growing up in Jamaica, my schoolteachers frequently recited the phrase: “No man is an island, no man stands alone.” The saying effectively transmitted to me and my peers’ childhood minds the message that we’re all in this together and that as humans, we need each other to survive, even though we resided in a country that was literally an island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.

Seven years as an adult living in the United States has given me another kind of education, namely that this philosophy is not as widespread as my cultural upbringing may have led me to believe. In my time here, I’ve worked as a communications specialist for nonprofit organizations helping engender support for policies that benefit individual people and communities at large, like paid sick time for the millions of workers preparing and serving food in restaurants across the country without the most basic of job protections. But despite the best efforts of dedicated Americans advocating for policies that advance the common good, a massive roadblock in engaging the wider public on these issues has remained. Focus group upon focus group and survey upon survey reveal that a major challenge to getting Americans to care about each other is the deeply ingrained belief that they have no obligation to.

Enter coronavirus, a disease which has brought into stark relief the deadly consequences of this societal sickness.

When news hit that a deathly and highly contagious virus had crossed the U.S. border, one upstanding citizen drove 300-miles across Tennessee and into Kentucky to buy all the antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer he could find in order to hoard and upsell them at horrendous prices to his fellow Americans. Stores are all out of toilet paper. Last week, I watched as a guy and his girlfriend bought close to 30 pounds of raw pasta. The shelves in my neighborhood Trader Joe’s were already empty of perishables by midday Saturday—things like milk, eggs, meat, bread—because people have reacted to the coronavirus crisis and its attendant panic by hunkering down and reverting to their most base instincts. That so many in America grew up admiring the recitation that “greed is good” and holding individualism as the highest of virtues is what may end up killing us all.

What’s been brought to the fore by COVID-19 is a disease that’s actually been killing people in this country for centuries. From rural white folks who consistently vote against policies that would literally save their lives because they resent any benefits that people of color may also receive, to the millions of American children who have been sacrificed to guarantee the loudest among us freedom from gun control, even when it’s painfully obvious that we all do better when we all do better, the average American brain is still trained to say, “Fuck you, I got mine.” ...
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