It was Friday, March 13th. I did not go out of the house that day. Instead, I watched my phone explode with messages about the lockdown that would come into effect two days later in my country. The buzzing felt like a declaration of war. There were loud announcements outside and on TV. Many of my friends were rushing to the stores to stock up. Not necessarily on toilet paper, but on pasta and wine, without which quarantining in Moldova would become unimaginable. The cautious but relatively relaxed attitude of my fellow citizens, often diluted with cynical jokes — “just take a shot of vodka every day to disinfect your throat” — already set the tone for disaster.
I did not leave the house for two weeks. There is a supermarket right across the street. I used to watch the people waiting in line to get in with curiosity, periodically opening the window to let some fresh air in. Two weeks later, the first time I decided to join them, I wore a new mask and gloves. When I entered the store, the security guard measured my temperature using an infrared thermometer. He pointed a tool resembling a gun at me and showed me the reading: 35.7 °C (96.3 F); only corpses could enter the store. According to the New York Times, using science improperly for the sake of putting on a show is nothing new. It was not only a lack of rule enforcement that was infuriating, but above all a lack of common sense. And I was ready to fight anybody who touched my things with bare hands. Because I was scared. Not only for myself but for my mother. Why didn’t people care?
The next few times I went out, I strolled around the park with my friend. As usual, we exchanged news about the pandemic. Italy is a top destination for emigration out of Moldova, and people were coming back from there at alarming rates, with no enforceable way to keep the virus at bay. The Constitutional Court ruled that fines for breaking quarantine law were illegal. The parks were full. Everything that followed later was a predictable tragedy: the government lifted restrictions, people ignored the threat, the statistics went up. And up. And up. My country was a COVID red zone for months, and we were not allowed to travel to any European country except Belarus. I joked with my friend that in the eyes of Europeans, Moldova is finally on the same level as the US. Because the real pandemic wasn’t a virus on the loose, murdering thousands of people with government support, but rather the plague of individualism for which Moldovan society tested positive.
This disease has its righteous roots in history. The Soviet Union forced 15 republics, each with its own nations and culture, into an artificial community. There might be an I in communism, but there is no place for allowing an individual to develop outside societal norms and a planned economy. The inevitable collapse of this unbalanced system led to a void that — in the hopeless socioeconomic conditions of the 90s — the natural order of every man for himself quickly filled. The civil wars, the ethnic disagreements, and the criminality were the symptoms against which one dose of dictatorship every four years was prescribed in most of the now-independent nations.
Thirty years later, the signs might be weaker, but the illness is still there. The black-market economy, the lack of rule of law, and the audacity that people in power have to accumulate wealth and break any legal or moral rules is the attitude that trickles down to the very basics of daily life. It is common knowledge among drivers in Moldova that there are only two rules: stop at a red light and when pedestrians are crossing the street. You can solve almost any problem through corruption. There is absolutely no sense of the common good; there is only the individual and his or her welfare.
New Zealanders, Koreans, and the Chinese would argue this is the reason for the Western world’s failure in this pandemic. The recipe for success is simple: make people act collectively, either through authoritarian leadership or by use of democratically passed laws and extensive tracking that would make Americans and Europeans shout “But my privacy! My freedom of movement!” As in any veritable Confucian society, the West should be ashamed. According to L. Susan Brown, “The human individual [without a mask or regard for other people’s safety] is of primary importance in the struggle for liberation” in individualistic societies.
According to certain studies and common perception, Eastern Europe is supposed to be in the middle of the individualism-collectivism spectrum, even though I’ve never been in a country more individualistic than Moldova (emphasis on I). North America and Western Europe lie at the edge of the spectrum, being the most I-focused. Indeed, the majority of the world associates American society with the importance of the individual and how this attitude pervades the life of American people. And thus, America lost the fight with the virus. The CCP endorses this message.
People equate individualism with freedom. But it is impossible to be free without communal assurance of every individual’s right to freedom. The destructive form of ignorance that flourishes in my country does not endow me with freedom. I am not always able to express myself or pursue happiness. Not because I have an internal standard of shame or cultural guilt, but because I do not know if the other individuals that live in our pseudo-community will let me enjoy my freedom. I often feel scared to walk alone at night. The roads are usually dimly lit since the infrastructure is lacking. Unlike in China or Korea, there are very few surveillance cameras. Unlike in the United States, my neighbors won’t care if they hear a fight outside their home. “It’s none of my business,” they think as they drive their expensive cars on unpaved roads.
The United States, albeit a very heterogeneous country, is free. But it is not individualistic; it is a peculiar shade of collectivist. A reflection of its federated power structure, Americans live in communities within communities. They aggregate based on any similarity factor: race, sexuality, religion, language, educational background, place, and even hobbies. The evidence is historically clear: when the Pilgrims came to the New World, they arrived as a group seeking refuge. The abolitionist movement led to the incorporation of all people of African origin in the US into a single group: black people. The subsequent further integration of various peoples into the multicultural fabric of the US has led to its fame as a melting pot, seemingly impossible without a high degree of individualism. However, it is the strong collective movements that have shaped the fight for equality and inclusion in American society, rather than the premise of intrinsic individual worth.
Starting from birth, Americans become connected to their particular ethnic and religious groups, and the strong influence this has on the development of their own life is extreme compared to other societies. And yet, at the macro level, the country is not segregated. Americans associate strongly with their flag, their history, their dollar, and, most of all, their country’s importance on a global scale. When Reps. Omar and Tlaib were denied entry to Israel, they relied first and foremost on their American identity, as did any American citizen who wished to return home during the pandemic. Being American away from home is a collective badge of honor. VICE commented on how, even in 2020 — when the world lost all trust in American exceptionalism — the popular Netflix comedy “Emily in Paris” nauseatingly reminded its international audience just how American one can be. The tale, while revolving around how superior American culture as a coherent element is, does not involve any domestic nuances of identity (such as race or sexuality).
Collectivism is visible in even more subtle aspects of American life: the pledge of allegiance at school, Church on Sunday, and protest on Monday. In American schools, team sports become a mechanism of unification that dissolves the tough barriers of race, income, and academic ability. This comes in contrast with both homogeneous East Asian societies where games are merely entertainment, and with Europe where fans are infamous for viewing their national team as an army at war, ignoring the international make-up of these commercial teams. Similarly, the American desire for popularity and toxic celebrity culture cannot exist without a communal background for the individual to stand out from. Since individualism emphasizes the well-being and development of the individual, for whom the achievements and actions of others are irrelevant, outshining the next person is an action predetermined by the dissatisfaction of being in a community. This trait is as present in the God-like status of American celebrities as it is in the SAT grading curves that Europeans so often gasp at. In the US, your own success is invariably tied to the success of your peers or lack thereof.
America lost its fight against the coronavirus. Unlike Moldova, it did not happen because of individualism. Ironically, it is remarkable that the US has achieved a particular breed of collectivism through heterogeneity and prosperity, rather than homogeneity and struggle. But to what extent this inaccurate categorization of social organization serves us remains an open question.
We always have an urge to draw a line because even a global pandemic cannot stop the fundamental human desire to compete. This time it is not an arms race but a race to be the best at flattening the curve and avoiding self-imposed death, where self refers to the community attacking the individual and the individual attacking the community; on a global scale, it is humanity attacking itself. Why don’t people care?
Hudson, John, Ruth Eglash, Josh Dawsey, and Rachael Bade. 2019. Israel denies entry to Reps. Omar and Tlaib hours after Trump’s push for a ban. August 15. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/netanyahu-considers-blocking-omar-tlaib-from-entering-israel-ahead-of-a-planned-weekend-visit/2019/08/15/d69983ce-d15b-4074-8590-c6f69bd4a084_story.html.
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