photo by Shane Rounce; //Unsplash

Heather Wylie pursued her doctorate in sociology from UC Davis and is a sociology teacher at Shasta College.  Her monthly Op-Ed column for Shasta Scout discusses the challenges facing our community through a sociological lens. You can read more about Heather here.

The Carr Fire changed everything. Redding would never be the same. Lives were lost, careers devastated, dreams decimated. But we were one – #Reddingstrong. Signs on overpasses, front yards, and downtown intersections showed that we were in this together, this crisis had happened to “us”. So what’s different now? Why has COVID-19 shoved us back into our respective corners? Why is it tearing at the very fabric of our beloved community?  

Simply put, we have forgotten the “public” in health. During this crisis, the “we” has become “I”, the “us” has become “me”. And we have culture to blame. At twice the death rate of other industrialized countries, we have failed miserably in our response to the COVID-19 virus, a failure that is apparent here in Shasta County, in the loss of over 200 of our family, friends and neighbors.

Of course, all sorts of factors are responsible for our dubious distinction here in the U.S. as leaders in lives lost to this virus. From the choices we’ve made as individuals, to mixed public health messaging, to failures of Democratic and Republican leadership, our lack of preparation for this crisis is obvious. But look closely and you’ll find a sociological explanation lurking beneath all of the partisan shouting – culture.

Our country’s cultural habit of framing health as an individual versus collective responsibility cannot be ignored. This “bootstraps” mentality is woven deeply into the fabric of this country. The idea that one’s success or failures are entirely within the control of an individual, that it’s simply a matter of hard work, ignores the fact that we exist in a society that doesn’t play fair. And our health is no exception. “Health”, as we define it, is considered an individual phenomenon – one gained from making “good personal choices”. But what if we don’t all have the same choices to make? What if there are factors outside of our control getting in the way?

Consider the other “pandemics” gripping our country. Deaths from guns, car crashes, heart disease, and AIDS, as well as the number of babies dying in childbirth, are growing in numbers that shock those in other wealthy countries. In fact, our overall life expectancy has gone down in large part to what economists’ call “deaths of despair” – those from suicide, drugs, and alcohol. While this loss of life is devastating, we find comfort in explaining them as simply “bad choices” instead of recognizing them for what they really are – social problems that require social solutions.

And we’re more than capable of collectively addressing a social problem, because we’ve done it with education. We decided long ago that learning wasn’t the lone responsibility of the individual. Rather, society – all of us – had a responsibility to ensure that everyone, regardless of their circumstance, could learn. We did so because, simply put, we collectively benefit from an educated populace. As this pandemic has shown, health is no different. When the most vulnerable became ill, we all suffered. Our focus on “me” versus “we” created the perfect playground for this virus. A culture that fights COVID-19 with “personal responsibility” doesn’t work. Addressing a structural problem by relying on individuals is doomed to fail.

Knowing as much, we nevertheless resisted collective responsibility because it’s a lot easier to blame individuals than fix big problems. Addressing decades of cuts to public health, the frayed social safety net, and systemic inequality – all major players in how this pandemic has played out – is much harder than getting angry at people for not wearing a mask or standing too close in the check-out line. As dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, Dr. Ashish Jha points out   “…it’s easy and cheap to yell at people for getting together for Christmas — especially when they really shouldn’t be doing it. Closing down bars and supporting them economically, in turn, requires both political will and financial capital.”(Lopez, 2020)

I’ll be the first to admit to grumbling under my masked breath at the person on the corner protesting government mandated “shelter in place” orders. Or giving the side-eye to the hordes of kids playing in my neighborhood instead of quarantining safely at home. But my focus on individual “choice” blinds me to the structural nature of the problem. There’s a good chance that person is on the corner is fighting to go to work because we’ve failed to provide enough unemployment insurance for them to feed their family. Or those kids. We didn’t make keeping schools open a priority, so we dumped the responsibility for them back on working parents. I, like so many others, fell into our culture’s trap of thinking of health as simply the product of individual “choice”. Instead, we’ve got to do the hard work together – healthcare reform, paid sick leave, financial support for small businesses. Then people can start making better “choices” because when we all do better, we all do better.

How do we know recognizing health as a collective responsibility works? Look around. Overall, the countries that have generally done better during this pandemic (Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea to name a few) immediately recognized COVID-19 for what it is – a public health crisis, a collective responsibility. Governments provided resources to let people stay home without losing as much income or health insurance, made keeping schools (and not bars) open a priority, and reached out to their most vulnerable populations. As such, they’re poised to bounce back from this crisis much quicker than us.

Or consider an example closer to home. While nationwide, Native Americans have a COVID case rate 3.5 times higher than Whites, an outlier, the Cherokee Nation, has experienced rates below the rest of America. With about 140,000 citizens, as of January, the Cherokee Nation had reported just over 4000 cases and 33 deaths. The Nation’s wealth, of course, plays a significant role in its low numbers, but so does its cultural commitment to the greater good. For example, when it became clear that the elderly were at especially high risk from this virus, the Cherokee Nation declared a state of emergency and asked all citizens to help shield its elders. This included a Cherokee-language COVID-19 hotline for first language speakers, meal delivery, and $400 stipends to those over 62 to help with virus-related expenses. Lisa Pivec, the Nation’s senior director of public health, reflecting on their response to the crisis, leaves us with this lesson. “I hope our response as a nation demonstrates what being in a tribe means…It’s collectively caring for one another.”

Heather will be responding to comments on this post on the Shasta Scout facebook page.  Join the conversation there!