- New cases of the coronavirus in the US continue to hit record highs, in sharp contrast to many other countries where illness rates have fallen off.
- Experts told Business Insider part of the increase can be blamed on Americans’ blasé attitudes, which are fueled by a politicization of the pandemic — but that’s not the whole story.
- Public health guidance has also been both confusing, conflicting, and at times downright unhelpful and dishonest, making it really hard for Americans to know how to do the right thing.
- In what feels like a hopeless fight, many have thrown caution to the wind, instead of emerging slowly and carefully into public life again.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
For months, Erika Crisp did everything “right.”
The healthcare worker in Jacksonville, Florida, was diligent about social distancing, and she stayed home as much as possible during the coronavirus lockdown.
But when she finally had the chance to meet up with friends at a bar in early June, just as her state’s second phase of reopening began, concerns about the pandemic were quickly brushed aside. Crisp and her friends didn’t wear masks, and remained in close quarters for an entire evening — precisely the type of setup in which the coronavirus thrives.
Days later, she and 15 of her friends tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
“The state opens back up, and said everybody was fine, so we took advantage of that,” Crisp told Jacksonville’s WJXT. “I think we had a whole ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality.”
Americans are becoming numb to the coronavirus, propelling its spread, but it’s not entirely their fault. The US has made it difficult to know how to be a responsible citizen during this pandemic, with a confusing patchwork of uneven virus protocols, hurried reopenings, a lack of proper disease surveillance, and shoddy advice about how to stay safe.
Six months into dealing with the coronavirus, many other countries have leaned on a well-proven, multi-part playbook for controlling its spread. Other previously hard-hit nations continue to get the outbreak under control. Some entirely eliminate it. Meanwhile, the US records around a quarter of the world’s new coronavirus infections, day after day.
Reopening is not an all or nothing proposition, but it’s being framed that way in the US
The truth is, you can get a haircut or have a beer with friends during the pandemic, if you do it wisely. These aren’t completely risk-free activities, but by maintaining social distancing and hand hygiene protocols, and requiring masks in crowded spaces, the chances of catching the virus are low.
Numerous states across the US didn’t do that. They began relaxing restrictions and reopening before federal criteria deemed it was safe, and they are now suffering the consequences. Countless people like Crisp have assumed that if their state or city is opening up, it’s ok to go back to pre-coronavirus ways.
“Not a whole hell of a lot has changed other than people are just tired of staying home,” social psychologist Tony Lemieux, who directs Georgia State University’s Global Studies Institute, told Business Insider.
The US never really shut down fully to begin with, which is another reason the reopening isn’t going well.
The mismatch between reopenings and reality isn’t something you see as much in other prosperous countries, where lockdown orders were lifted only when there was rigorous testing, contact-tracing, and quarantining measures in place. Only then can the virus’ inevitable spread be controlled without implementing lockdowns yet again.
It’s possible other wealthy countries would be feeling numb and restless right now too, if they were in a halfhearted, unsuccessful lockdown state for as long as the US has been. But most have already mustered far more control against eventual coronavirus outbreaks.
American exceptionalism overshadows good public health
In the US, authorities are largely flying blind when it comes to public health surveillance, because there isn’t solid federal data being collected on where infections are spreading. Some of the best real-time coronavirus tracking tools the country has today are being run by journalists, scholars, and policy wonks.
President Trump still doesn’t even wear a mask.
“Somehow the rebel is an image, an icon in America,” Syon Bhanot, a behavioral and public economist at Swarthmore College, told Business Insider. “People who obey the rules, who follow the orderly path are not necessarily lionized, relative to other countries.”
The US just hasn’t taken the viral threat seriously, and has assumed it will be able to emerge victorious. But that’s not the way infectious diseases work.
“I think the attitude of pushing back from authority and pushing back on scientific data is very concerning,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said while testifying before members of the US Senate on Tuesday. “We’re in the middle of a catastrophic outbreak, and we really do need to be guided by scientific principles.”
The US is ‘based on the premise that people didn’t want the government telling them what to do’
The US prizes independence above most things, and that’s showing up during the coronavirus pandemic both on an individual level, with every person going their own way on virus prevention, and when it comes to how cities and states run their crisis response.
For this reason, states, not the federal government, are responsible for the public health of their citizens in the US. It’s a blessing and a curse at a time like this.
It’s a good thing when local control means local outbreaks are dealt with in real time, in the very places where they are spreading. But too often, states and cities have forged ahead with rushed reopening plans, despite signs that local cases are on the rise.
Many municipalities are now playing catch up, rushing into ordering their citizens to wear masks, or shutting down businesses altogether again, hoping to contain preventable yet out of control disease spread.
“We always will struggle in the United States when we try to compel by government fiat people to do things that they don’t understand why they should be doing them,” Adams said.
Misinformation and mixed messaging has made Americans numb, too
Since the pandemic hit the US, contradictory recommendations and misinformation — ranging from changing advice on mask-wearing to full-blown conspiracy theories — has also led people to throw their hands up in confusion and do what they want.
“When there are competing narratives and competing information, people are going to lean in the direction of what they wanted to do anyway, or they’re going to do things that are going to reduce that dissonance,” Lemieux said.
In New Zealand, where the coronavirus has been eradicated, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern “is a very good communicator who the public trusts,” Nick Wilson, a professor and public health expert at the University of Otago in New Zealand, previously told Business Insider.
Her country also keeps enough masks in its national stockpile to provide many to each citizen during a crisis, and factories in the island nation churned out tens of thousands more every day at the height of the pandemic.
In Germany, where the pandemic was under control within six weeks, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been credited for her straightforward communication about why following guidelines was necessary to save lives.
It’s not just the rich countries that can benefit from such clear guidance. In the Philippines, cabinet ministers took seriously one scientists’ threat that “every disaster movie starts with” ignoring a scientist, and decided to adopt all his coronavirus recommendations. So far, fewer than 1,300 people have died in the island nation.
A public health crisis has become a sharply divisive political issue
On an individual level, Americans are numb to the pandemic because it’s become political. Partisan bickering has prompted people to forget about the fact that this is a non-partisan public health crisis, losing their empathy in the process.
“I think it’s part of the American character to sort of … push back against constraints,” Bhanot said. “Individualism in America has given us a lot of things that we benefit from to this day … But at a moment like this, it’s showing its darker side.”
Take the recent scene at a Kroger grocery store in Lansing, Michigan, where employee Kristine Holtham told Business Insider she asked a customer to follow the store’s rules and put on a face covering while shopping.
“I don’t give a damn about your health,” he said in return.
“I face each day with anxiety and it gets worse when I see customers refuse to wear masks,” Holtham said. “I am a mother and my children need me to stay healthy.”
There is still reason to believe the American public can be marshaled for good
It’s not too late for people in the US to get on board with fighting the virus. Many already are, in one way or another.
Nationwide surveys conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May found widespread appreciation for social distancing measures in the US. Nearly 90% of people surveyed at the time agreed that everyone should keep a six-foot distance from others, and more than 80% approved of the idea that “groups of 10 or more” should not be allowed to congregate.
“We have to learn to live with this virus,” the World Health Organization’s Mike Ryan said during a press conference on Wednesday. “You need to be able to take control of your own destiny also, and not just rely on information from governments.”
At this point, people in the US are going to have to figure out how to better control the pandemic on their own. How American is that?