Coronavirus and Community

The novel coronavirus also attacks our need for community, which is the antidote to the epidemic of toxic individualism that has begun afflicting much of middle America.

The novel coronavirus also attacks our need for community, which is the antidote to the epidemic of toxic individualism that has begun afflicting much of middle America.

• Topics: USA / Global, Climate, People,

One of the more pernicious aspects of the novel coronavirus pandemic is how it attacks not just our bodies and minds but also our sense of community. It tears at our very togetherness. We huddle in our homes, fearful of direct human contact. What makes us fully human — our enduring need for connection — has unfortunately become fraught with potential danger.

On Orcas Island where I live, that assault on community comes in venues such as the Saturday farmers’ market, which was a shadow of its former self this summer, as well as the Odd Fellows Halloween party and Thanksgiving dinner, which have been canceled. The wildly popular Solstice and July 4 Parades, which previously attracted scores of participants and hundreds of merry onlookers, also had to be canceled this year. So did in-person meetings at the fire station, of such groups as the County Council, the water-users association and my homeowners association. Other gatherings of which I am less aware — at Orcas Center, the public library and community church — were also dropped or continued online. These and many other voluntary activities are what have made us a flourishing community.

“What makes us fully human has become fraught with potential danger.”

Today we struggle to fill the yawning gap with email, conference calls, video meetings and online blogs, but these electronic forums fall well short of what is needed to nourish thriving relationships. They are notoriously poor at relaying the nonverbal cues and messages that convey the subtle nuances of meaning so essential to good communication. And they are too controlled by agendas or organizers to permit much of the random cross-fertilization of ideas that can occur spontaneously when individuals can meet face to face.

Community activities are the antidote to the avid individualism that has characterized our nation since its inception. This was the central theme of a mid-1980s book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by University of California sociologist Robert N. Bellah and four young colleagues, published to wide critical acclaim. They took their title from a prominent phrase in Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous 1830s treatise, Democracy in America.

Often unspoken, these innate habits of American life form “the web of moral understandings that tie people together in a community.” In the United States, the authors argued, such voluntary community institutions as churches, town halls and parent-teacher associations have provided the crucial connective tissue that bind local societies together despite the diversity of their members and the individualistic forces that threaten to rend them.

But as Commonweal editor Peter Steinfels observed in a review, Habits of the Heart was a worried book. “We are concerned that this individualism may have grown cancerous,” the authors wrote in their preface, “that it may be destroying those social integuments that Tocqueville saw as moderating its more destructive potentialities, that it may be threatening the survival of freedom itself.” Voiced in the midst of the self-absorbed Reagan years, this threat has never been greater than it is today under the dark shadows of the Trump presidency.

From his first day in office, and before that on the campaign trail, this president has done his utmost to divide Americans, not unite us under common ideas we could agree to, or at least acquiesce in. As Tocqueville wrote:

Without common ideas, there is no common action, and without common action, men still exist, but a social body does not. Thus in order that there be a society, and all the more that this society prosper, it is necessary that all the minds of its citizens always be brought together and held together by some principle ideas.

Americans have been seeking such new common ideas for nearly three decades, ever since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union — our nearly universal common enemy — and the end of the Cold War. Not since the deep 1850s divisions over slavery has US society been so polarized as it is today.

The novel coronavirus could have become one of those bonding common enemies — as indeed it is — but our antagonistic president has used it instead as yet another means to divide us Americans from each other. From the outset, he publicly denied its gravity while privately confiding that he knew it was “deadly stuff.” Instead of heeding the advice of highly respected scientific leaders such as Anthony Fauci and Robert Redfield, he ridiculed the wearing of masks and instead touted quack remedies like hydroxychloroquine and ingesting bleach. He even went so far as to deride responsible leaders — for example, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer — who mandated the wearing of masks, urging his rabid base to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Which was what some of his far-right followers were apparently planning to try to do before the FBI foiled their evil plot.

Elsewhere I have written that, because of his actions and inactions, this president deserves our condemnation as personally responsible for the needless loss of over 100,000 American lives — more than the number that perished in the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined. But perhaps we should not single him out as the only one responsible for such carnage, for he has been encouraging what some have dubbed the “toxic individualism” of American society. This phrase echoes the prescient warning of Habits authors that our cultural individualism “may have grown cancerous.” During the Trump presidency, that malignancy has seemingly metastasized and now afflicts a large part of the body politic.

There is no better example of this toxic individualism than the man who, claiming it violates his freedom, refuses to wear a mask that would protect those around him from the coronavirus that he could be spreading as an asymptomatic carrier. That’s not freedom; it’s irresponsibility. And egged on by their erratic president, the spineless Republican governors of several Sunbelt states initially refused to mandate mask wearing when they reopened their economies prematurely in May. They soon had to reverse themselves as the Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths surged in the summer. That, if anything, was “American carnage.”

Other national societies that stress collective priorities over individual freedom — for example, China, Japan and South Korea — have fared far better than the United States in combating the pandemic. In Japan, mask wearing is an almost universally accepted norm. That nation of 127 million has experienced fewer than 95,000 Covid-19 cases and 1,700 deaths so far; both numbers are only about one percent of corresponding US figures. Much of that huge difference is due to an irresponsible leader inflaming the toxic individualism of his following.

Here on Orcas Island, and in San Juan County more generally, we have been behaving more like the Japanese than have our mainland neighbors, with excellent results. We have taken mask wearing very seriously and try to keep our physical distance in situations where encounters with others cannot be avoided. And despite thousands of visitors this summer, with hundreds of them probably infectious, there was only a small increase of an additional 15 or so Covid-19 cases — proof that these preventive measures have been working. Much less than one percent of the county population has tested positive for the virus, far better than the state average. And despite the fact that about a third of county citizens are over age 65, we have yet to experience a single death!

“Toxic individualism is not a significant part of the Orcas Island culture”

These figures reflect the importance that San Juan Islanders attach to our community values. Toxic individualism is not a significant part of the Orcas Island culture. And I believe this approach can serve as a good model for the rest of the state. As we eventually recover from this terrible pandemic — a process that will probably take years — we should keep high among our priorities the need to reinvigorate the vital community activities that make life worth living.

References Cited

Robert. N Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985; rev. edn. 2007).

Neal F. Lane and Michael Riordan, “The President’s Disdain for Science,” New York Times (5 January 2018), p A27.

Jean Kim, M.D., “How America Fell into Toxic Individualism,” Psychology Today (25 May 2020).

Michael Riordan, “The Human Cost of the Trump Pandemic Response? More Than 100,000 Unnecessary Deaths.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (30 September 2020).

About Michael Riordan

Posting Citizen Journalist • Eastsound, WA • Member since Nov 25, 2016

Michael Riordan writes about science, technology and public policy from Orcas Island, where he lives and kayaks. He holds a PhD degree in physics from MIT, having worked on the [...]

Comments by Readers

Ellen Baker-Glacier

Nov 01, 2020

I, for one, bristle at the suggestion that “individualism” is in itself toxic or a danger to the social fabric.  The nature of homo sapiens is individualistic.  Every human arrives unique, differing significantly from one’s parents, sibs, and even from like minded peers.  Differing brings depth to life, culture and civilization.  So I see individuality and “individualism” as the norm, not an abberation.

If the actual thrust of the matter is conforming for safety, I suggest it’s better to address the substantive issue(s) head on.  Why take a spear to individualism?   There are times that not conforming has merit.  Just this last week I re-read the classic short story “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson that was written in 1946.  Those not familiar with it may want to find this uber-short read and reflect on it.  (The last sentence of the tale about mindless conformity, as a woman is being stoned to death, is:   “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”)

As for the current political and ideological schism - as long as you’re quoting Alexis de~:   “Democracy,” Tocqueville wrote, “extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it.  Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number.  Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality.  But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”

[Cliche] “At the end of the day,” some may prefer to face the risk of disease than be metaphorically stoned for disagreeing with the dicta.


Michael Riordan

Nov 01, 2020

How did “socialism” get into this discussion? It’s a shopworn political concept from the twentieth century and before that, which has diminishing relevance today. China, for example, is not a true socialist country in the best sense of the word; a much better description of its political philosophy is autocratic state capitalism. Same for Russia.

The article I published is about the undying human need for community and how the coronavirus is attacking that. Please reread the opening sentence. We have plenty of larger-than-life individuals here on Orcas Island, but most of them highly value the community here that is bulit upon a diversity of individuals. We are most definitely NOT mere agents or numbers.

And there are varieties of individualism, as the authors of Habits of the Heart made clear. Please note their subtitle: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. They were, however, worried that American individualsm was growing cancerous during the Reagan years—which indeed it was, leading eventually to the gross inequalities that contort American society today.

Under our current excuse for a president, that individualism has indeed become toxic, as my example of the mask-defying man (they are usually men) illustrates. Our execrable “leader” himself refused to wear a mask upon returning to the White House from Walter Reed Military Hospital even though he was obviously still infectious. This is toxic individualism writ large.

The consequences of this toxic American individualism can be seen in our numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths, as I wrote in a previous article, The Pandemic and the Presidency. Just take a good look at the first graph, showing the “Trump Surge” in cases during the summer, due to the fact that Sunbelt states led by spineless Republican (that’s probably an oxymoron) governors reopened their economies too early at his urging while resisting mask-wearing mandates. Compared to the European Union, the United States experienced about 85,000 more deaths during the summer due to Covid-19 — and those EU nations have about 35 percent higher total population. That’s toxic.

And take a look also at the current total number of deaths per million citizens for China, Japan and South Korea, mentioned above: China, 3.3; Japan 14.0; South Korea 9.0. The last two are hardly “socialist” countries but their people do care a lot about their fellow citizens and communities. The corresponding number for the United States? 697 deaths per million citizens and growing fast—especially in the swath of Red states in middle America stretching from Idaho to Kentucky, where toxic individualism is a particularly virulent disease today.

I rest my case.



Ryan M. Ferris

Nov 20, 2020

Japan and South Korea are seeing upticks in cases and deaths now. But compared to the rest of the world their numbers are exceptionally low. Their approaches were different. No one quite understands the Japan miracle with Covid-19. Korea made excellent use of AI, contact tracing, authoritative approaches that probably wouldn’t fly in the US. Japan seized upon aerosolized spread very early. They are masters of HVAC, heat pump, air filtration.  The only real commonality I can see between Orcas, Japan, South Korea, (maybe New Zealand and Taiwan) is that they are surrounded by water. Air quality is a suspected partner in in Covid-19 spread. Harvard has a huge study on this: I will tell you personally that I travel to Orcas for the air quality, especially now that I can’t travel to Tofino, BC. It is worth noting that neither Japan, South Korea or Taiwan actually ‘locked down’. NZ locked down hard. Orcas and Friday Harbor was in some modified phase this summer. I went to both some number of times. Maybe not as packed as usual but still plenty of people wandering the streets and restaurants.


Michael Riordan

Nov 21, 2020

Thanks, Ryan, for your thoughtful comments.

I, too, am amazed by the Japanese experience and cannot begin to fathom how they have done so well. I think the best comparison is with our neighboring Canada, which has similar concentrations of urban populations as well as broad expanses of rural areas. But there are three big differences: Donald Trump is not its leader, toxic individualism is not a significant part of its culture, and it has a strong public-health system. I’d bet that’s why Canada has a case count per million citizens that is less than half the corresponding US figure.

And you have perceptive comments about Orcas Island and Friday Harbor. In an article I wrote this summer for Orcas Issues, “We Dodged a Big Bullet,” I marveled at how low our case counts had been despite the fact that there had probably been hundreds of infectious tourists in our midst. My conclusion was that our community consciousness played a big role—that we wore our face coverings almost everywhere and avoided the downtown areas where tourists would congregate.


Ryan M. Ferris

Nov 21, 2020

Although not widely publicized, Japan jumped on aerosol spread quickly. The Diamond Princess apparently cued them to aerosol spread because their well trained infection specialist got Covid-19 despite precautions. From that point on, aerosol spread became part of their solutions, their"Three Cs” equations. And the Japanese do air filtration, HVAC installation, and heat pump tech *really* well. We are still arguing about aerosol spread here despite out of control infections we can’t even trace anymore. The “droplet mafia” doomed us!

Here is a sample article on this. Shows how the Japanese leveraged their super computers for modeling spread and how that lead to changes in ventilation and filtration:

Another technical article:

One thing I saw on Friday Harbor that I haven’t seen enough of elsewhere: A guy sitting outside with fresh masks. If we were doing masking correctly, everyone who enters a small or large scale space would receive a mask, don it properly then doff it into an appropriate container on exit. People are just walking around with useless cloth contaminated masks spreading Covid as they enter each new location.

We really don’t have a clue here in America. People say “follow the science”. But our science in America is stupid and clueless. Not so much in Japan, Germany, Sweden, Taiwan, South Korea.

Another FAQ on aersol transmission:*YrLy9epGlHWhKPSl5JMT3w#

Also, another perspective on Japan that shows very high seroprevalence in Tokyo: Which means community spread is very high because they didn’t lock down! But low deaths, low hospitalizations. Also healthier, less obese population.


Michael Riordan

Nov 22, 2020

Thanks again, Ryan. Those articles are helpful, but I still find the Japanese case truly amazing.

Back here in San Juan County, things are unfortunately not going so well any more. We had ten new cases last week, most of them on Orcas Island, where a small outbreak occurred. So the county positivity rating — the ratio of positive to total tests — jumped to 4.1 percent last week, and on Orcas Island, it probably rose above 5 percent. Until two weeks ago, the county had one of the best records in the state, with a positivity rating consistently below 1 percent. Compare those numbers with the current 6.8 percent statewide. We’re not so successful any more, although we still haven’t had any Covid-19 deaths, which is remarkable considering that a third of the county population is over 65 years old.

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