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Individualist thinking makes prospects for global anti-pandemic campaign dim

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Image: De an Sun/Unsplash

In a recent letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen, D. J. Phillips disagreed that everyone should be compelled to wear a face mask.

"It is your right to wear a face mask," Phillips conceded. "However, it is not your right to inflict your preferences on anyone else ... If you feel better, use one, but don't push your fears on people that are very comfortable not wearing one."

The letter writer completely disregarded the fact that, by refusing to wear a mask in public, one exposes people nearby to the expulsion of possibly virus-tainted breath. It's the fastest way to spread the virus and increase the extent of its infections and fatalities.

I don't think that Phillips' insensitive views are shared by most Canadians, who are dutifully donning face masks when visiting stores and parks, and also self-distancing. But clearly thousands of people -- primarily those in their 20s, 30s and 40s -- are blatantly mingling without any effort to protect others from contamination.

The situation in the United States, of course, is far worse. The premature reactivation of the country's economy, along with the baneful reopening of public markets and beaches, has predictably led to a massive resurgence of COVID-19 in some states.

The motivation for this recklessness has several causes. The main one is the big corporations' desperate urge to reopen the country's mills, factories, farms, mines, parks, bars and other sectors of its lagging economy. The decline of profits incurred from the pandemic was motivation enough for them, as was the concurrent drastic rise in unemployment. But the undue haste in trying to regain economic normality in the middle of a still widespread pandemic is having the horrendously opposite effect. 

Then there is President Trump's obsession with the looming federal election. With polls now exposing a slump in his popularity, he is almost entirely fixated on winning another term in office. So he brushes aside, minimizes and even denies the mounting peril of a reactivated pandemic.

His priority now is to smear the Democrats, belittle Joe Biden, and rally the Republicans in Congress behind his re-election campaign. To him, nothing else matters, not even the renewed pandemic upsurge. It's a narcissistic, self-indulgent decision that will likely squash any chance he may have otherwise had to win re-election. 

The most deadly aspect of the pandemic's expansion, however, is the refusal of so many people to accept and use the essential protective measures. They regard self-distancing and the wearing of face masks as arbitrary impositions on their basic freedoms. They are to be seen in droves at parties and other gatherings, maskless and crammed close together. 

Individualism trumps co-operation

This irresponsible behavior is the direct result of an economic and cultural ideology that ranks individualism above collaboration. Capitalism is built on the foundation of competition. The greatest fortunes are made and the strongest power wielded by those who are the most ruthless in the inequitable capitalist "winner takes all" system.

The virulent flaws of unfair and uncontrolled capitalism have been vividly exposed by the coronavirus assault. Kevin Baker deplored them in his column in the July issue of Harper's magazine. He writes:

"The challenges we will have to face cannot be met by a society so divided, so given over to the wealthiest and most powerful. Everything that supposedly elevated the United States above the rest of the world -- meager unions, low taxes, inadequate consumer protection, a dearth of government regulations, a flimsy social safety net, a complete lack of central planning -- has instead mired us in a crisis that much of the world is already climbing out of."

Baker was describing the many detrimental effects of capitalism in the United States, but we Canadians shouldn't exempt our country from a similar lack of teamwork. It's not nearly as disruptive as it is in the U.S., but discord among provinces, and between provinces and the federal government, are far from rare -- and certainly not during a pandemic.

Worldwide anti-virus effort needed

If there was ever a time when collaboration was most urgently needed, it is not just between cities, states or provinces or adjacent countries. COVID-19's expanse is worldwide, so the battle to overcome it should also be worldwide.

Admittedly, there has been some helpful provision of masks, ventilators and other medical aids between countries, and under the aegis of the World Health Organization. But the extent of true partnership in confronting and containing the pandemic has been minimal.

If thousands of us balk at even wearing face masks, the prospect of mobilizing political and business leaders around the world for this mission is far from promising.  

The grim reality is that the dominance of individualism over co-operation still prevails in the minds and beliefs of those who control our governments, banks and corporations. Their greed pre-empts our need. 

*     *     *

In closing on this rather doleful note, I refer readers to a book titled The World Without Us, written 13 years ago by Alan Weisman. It relates what our world would look like after global warming, over-population and the man-made extinction of hundreds of animals, fish and birds leads also to the extinction of humankind. 

It is not, however, a book that is entirely devoid of hope. There was still time, at least 13 years ago, to avert such a catastrophe, so the book's many admirers at that time -- including the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and in Canada the Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen and Windsor Star -- did not stint in their praise, especially after the book won the best book of the year from Time and Entertainment Weekly. 

I doubt whether Weisman would retain even a smidgeon of such optimism if he were to rewrite or update his book today. But it's still well worth reading. Despite its somber tone, reviewers called it "compulsively readable," "prodigious and impressive," and "A curiously refreshing vision of the apocalypse." One said “It should be broadly read and discussed.”

I haven't inquired whether Weisman's book is still available, but it was such a huge bestseller that I'm sure it can be obtained from major retailers -- perhaps even from your local library if it's still not closed by the pandemic.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer's apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city's daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

Image: De an Sun/Unsplash

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