A long time ago, in an America far, far away — actually just last spring — many conservatives dismissed COVID-19 as a New York problem. It’s true that in the first few months of the pandemic, the New York area, the port of entry for many infected visitors from Europe, was hit very hard. But the focus on New York also played into right-wing “American carnage” narratives about the evils of densely populated, diverse cities. Rural white states imagined themselves immune.
New York eventually controlled its viral surge, in large part via widespread mask-wearing, and at this point the “anarchist jurisdiction” is one of the safest places in the country. Despite a worrying uptick in some neighborhoods, especially in religious communities that have been flouting rules on social distancing, New York City’s positivity rate — the fraction of tests showing presence of the coronavirus — is only a bit over 1%.
Even as New York contained its pandemic, however, the coronavirus surged out of control in other parts of the country. There was a deadly summer spike in much of the Sunbelt. And right now the virus is running wild in much of the Midwest; in particular, the most dangerous places in America may be the Dakotas.
Last weekend North Dakota, which is averaging more than 700 new coronavirus cases every day, was down to only 17 available ICU beds. South Dakota now has a terrifying 35% positivity rate. Deaths tend to lag behind infections and hospitalizations, but more people are already dying daily in the Dakotas than in New York state, which has 10 times their combined population. And there’s every reason to fear that things will get worse as cold weather forces people indoors and COVID-19 interacts with the flu season.
But why does this keep happening? Why does America keep making the same mistakes?
Donald Trump’s disastrous leadership is, of course, an important factor. But I also blame Ayn Rand — or, more generally, libertarianism gone bad, a misunderstanding of what freedom is all about.
If you look at what Republican politicians are saying as the pandemic rips through their states, you see a lot of science denial. Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, has gone full Trump — questioning the usefulness of masks and encouraging potential superspreader events. (The Sturgis motorcycle rally, which drew almost a half-million bikers to her state, may have played a key role in setting off the viral surge.)
But you also see a lot of libertarian rhetoric — a lot of talk about “freedom” and “personal responsibility.” Even politicians willing to say that people should cover their faces and avoid indoor gatherings refuse to use their power to impose rules to that effect, insisting that it should be a matter of individual choice.
Which is nonsense.
Many things should be matters of individual choice. The government has no business dictating your cultural tastes, your faith or what you decide to do with other consenting adults.
But refusing to wear a face covering during a pandemic, or insisting on mingling indoors with large groups, isn’t like following the church of your choice. It’s more like dumping raw sewage into a reservoir that supplies other people’s drinking water.
Remarkably, many prominent figures still don’t seem to understand (or aren’t willing to understand) why we should be practicing social distancing. It’s not primarily about protecting ourselves — if it were, it would indeed be a personal choice. Instead, it’s about not endangering others. Wearing a mask may provide some protection to the wearer, but mostly it limits the chance that you’ll infect other people.
Or to put it another way, irresponsible behavior right now is essentially a form of pollution. The only difference is in the level at which behavior needs to be changed. For the most part, controlling pollution involves regulating institutions — limiting sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants, requiring cars to have catalytic converters. Individual choices — paper versus plastic, walking instead of driving — aren’t completely irrelevant, but they have only a marginal effect.
Controlling a pandemic, on the other hand, mainly requires that individuals change their behavior — covering their faces, refraining from hanging out in bars. But the principle is the same.
Now, I know that some people are enraged by any suggestion that they should bear some inconvenience to protect the common good. Indeed, for reasons I don’t fully understand, the rage seems most intense when the inconvenience is trivial. Case in point: With around 5,000 Americans dying each week from COVID-19, Donald Trump seems obsessed with the problems he apparently has with low-flush toilets.
But this is no time for people to indulge their petty obsessions. Trump may complain that “all you hear is COVID, COVID, COVID.” The fact, however, is that the current path of the pandemic is terrifying. And we desperately need leadership from politicians who will take it seriously.
Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.