Many Americans are strikingly tolerant of massive COVID-19 casualties
Maitreya Bhakal

Editor's note: Maitreya Bhakal is an Indian commentator who writes about China, India, U.S. and global issues. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Apparently, Americans love challenging authority. They don't like being told what to do. Ever since the nation was founded on the genocide of native Americans and the theft of their lands, toxic notions of "freedom" and the need to project strength remain core elements of U.S. culture. As many Americans would put it, if we do anything we don't like – even if it's good for us – "the terrorists win."

If we wear masks, the virus wins

Unfortunately, this concept of rejecting authority extends to authoritative expert advice too. Many Americans – with their bodies infested with drugs and minds with propaganda – are proud of the freedom to believe whatever they want. Just witness the ubiquitous popularity of conspiracy theories in the country – from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to QAnon to Russian hacking.

This contradiction lies at the heart of U.S. culture. Call it the Schrodinger's American: someone who is both challenging of authority and believes whatever they are told as long as it fits into their pre-conceived notions.

The U.S. government is both the instigator and the beneficiary of this mass delusion. Most of these crank conspiracy theories are pumped into the public by the government itself – much like the drugs it pumps into them. This helps keep them in check and distracts them from domestic problems. 

A pandemic of "freedom"

Into this explosive minefield stepped the deadliest pandemic in 100 years. As soon as America heard of this new virus, its Pavlovian response was to dismiss it. "Don't worry about the coronavirus. Worry about the flu," proclaimed BuzzFeed News. Hip millennial outlets such as Vox advised Americans to "pass on" wearing masks.

Astonishingly, so did U.S. officials and experts. The idea of a mass epidemic was dismissed as dystopian fiction – even though it was literally occurring in China at the time. U.S. experts scoffed at the idea of massive infections and deaths. Those only happened in movies apparently – or in exotic, faraway China.

Not only did health officials not advise wearing masks – they actually advised against it. The government literally warned the public against doing what was known to save lives. Even former President Donald Trump dismissed the outbreak as a hoax (before promptly being infected by the hoax himself). 

In February 2020, he downplayed the coronavirus and compared it to the flu. Later in October, his chief of staff made exactly the same comparison. In between these two statements over 200,000 Americans had died. These American lives had caused no evolution in the U.S. administration's concern for its people.

The importance of shame in America

U.S. individualist culture is best described as militant individualism. Only in the U.S. do people refuse to wear a mask in public – but fight for the right to carry a gun in public. Instead, Americans fought for the right to not wear a mask – even protesting for it.

Many Americans are concerned that worrying about a mere virus would make them look weak. A study found that American men consider wearing masks to be "uncool," "shameful," and a "sign of weakness." Others liken it to a form of social control and an assault on their freedoms. 

Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, addresses a coronavirus response briefing, in Washington, D.C., April 1, 2020. /Reuters

Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, addresses a coronavirus response briefing, in Washington, D.C., April 1, 2020. /Reuters

Defying healthy guidelines is considered to be a sign of American exceptionalism and resolve. Dr. Anthony Fauci initially asked Americans not to wear masks. By the time he changed his mind, after many Americans had already died, he received death threats just for asking Americans to be more hygienic.

After distilling such egoism in its subjects, the administration itself was also eager to look stronger. Initially, there was bipartisan consensus on abhorring masks. People were openly encouraged by officials to stop "living in fear" and flaunt social distancing guidelines. 

Representative Paul Gosar tweeted that he'd "rather die gloriously in battle than from a virus." President Trump himself refused to wear a mask. By the time he finally appeared wearing one in public for the first time, about 135,000 Americans had already been sacrificed.

Look who's dying

An additional explanation for America's nonchalant attitude towards deaths could lie in the race of the victims. Despite White Americans constituting about 73 percent of the population, Blacks and indigenous Americans have much higher COVID death rates. Many of America's white majority considers minorities as dirty, backward and criminal. 

No wonder the (white majority) government seems to have moved on, with Trump's chief of staff openly declaring "We're not going to control the pandemic." Americans would hope that the Biden administration will be different.

More than 457,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 so far. That is about 100 times China's death toll, despite a quarter of the population. Americans are proud of their freedoms, which apparently Chinese don't enjoy. If only more of them had the freedom to survive a pandemic. 

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