by Ahona Dam and Julian Phillips, Centerfold Editors
graphic by Julie Wang
When psychology teacher Paul Estin heard that his father-in-law would not be getting the COVID-19 vaccine, his first reactions were those of shock and anger.
“I haven’t wanted to confront him on it, but it’s like, ‘really?’” he said. “His official reason is the development was rushed too much so it’s not safe.”
Despite the rise of the Delta variant and COVID-19 cases around the world, some individuals, like Estin’s father-in-law, have decided against the vaccine due to a multitude of reasons. Some unvaccinated people hold an individualistic attitude towards the vaccine, fueling discussions of safety and freedom. For those who are vaccinated and looking towards a transition back to normal life, this mindset can be frustrating.
Senior Elias Guermazi said there has to be a drastic shift from individualistic beliefs to a more collectivistic attitude if America is to recover from the pandemic.
“Whether or not you wear a mask says how much you value [others’] thoughts and discriminate against people around you,” he said.
The concept of individualism, a word often positively associated with independence and singularity, has evolved during the pandemic to the degree of holding personal freedom above the safety of others.
Liberty or Death
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated values of independence in American culture that can be traced back to colonial times.
In the 17th century, Europeans immigrated to the Americas, obtaining large tracts of land that allowed for a dispersed population. Systems like Spanish encomiendas or English charters allowed private companies and citizens to easily claim resources, leading to an increased focus on individual property and rights.
For the English, the rise of individualism led to anti-government stances as crown control over the colonies grew. After years under self-rule, many colonists were irate at the idea of a strong government.
Even before the Thirteen Colonies were founded, English philosophical debates about individualism began to shape the present-day United States.
Philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke presented the idea of a ‘social contract,’ in which individuals give up some rights for other government benefits — for example, taxation for public infrastructure. However, Locke believed that it was the duty of the government to protect the individual rights of life, liberty and property. His philosophy contrasted with Hobbes in that he believed citizens had a right to rebel against the government if authorities violated their contract.
Colonists adopted these principles to fit their needs, arguing that Britain’s oppressive rule violated their social contract. Revolutionaries further advocated for representation in communities, where representatives, exclusive to each community, would be democratically elected. These principles, combined with the emerging focus on private property, drove America’s individualism complex and transformed democracy and American politics.
While philosophers like Locke established individualism in American society, contemporary sources morphed it into its present form.
Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand believed in a more radical form of individualism that allowed individuals to think independently and analyze their own desires. Objectivism, a theory proposed by Rand in the mid-20th century, rejects altruism and promotes selfishness. Rand said that objectivism “is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life.” Ethical egoism, one of the principles of objectivism, states that an action is moral if it is in one’s self-interest.
Locke and Rand’s philosophies have become increasingly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. While individualism can be harmful in many circumstances, some people, like English teacher Kelly Henderson, believe that it is largely to blame for the severity of the pandemic. Henderson said that the nature of a pandemic, in particular, exposes toxic elements of American culture.
“The pandemic revealed some of the ways that the hyper-individualistic worldview doesn’t work in a crisis because the health and safety of my family depend on the health and safety of your family,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve organized our society in such a way that we don’t have systems that recognize that we need each other.”
While the country’s founders emphasized personal freedoms when creating the skeleton of America’s governing principles, senior Gabriella Zaff said that the idea has been misinterpreted from its original philosophy.
“The country was intended to be founded upon freedom and liberty to protect people, but people have taken that extra step to think about just themselves,” she said.
Guermazi said that personal freedom should not interfere with safety measures because with regards to the pandemic, people should respect others’ boundaries of staying safe.
“If you want the personal freedom to not get vaccinated, you should stay home or wear a mask at all times because it’s not fair to other people in your community that you should both have the personal freedom to not take any precautions and also have the personal freedom to be in public and be in enclosed spaces with people,” he said. “At that point you’re infringing on other people’s health.”
Recent surveys suggest that there are two groups of unvaccinated people in the United States: those who firmly oppose the idea of getting the vaccine and others who are waiting to make a decision. According to the New York Times, 93 million people are eligible for the vaccine but have decided not to take them despite current trends in cases.
David Poles, a mental health counselor at the Newton Counseling Center, said that he has observed two major reasons for why people are hesitant against the vaccine.
“For some people, it’s fear. They don’t trust the science, and they don’t trust that there’s enough data to support the efficacy of [the vaccine] long term,” he said. “For some, they don’t want to be told what to do or how to live their lives.”
In response to behaviors of distrust and defiance, society has become judgemental of those unwilling to take the vaccine or follow health recommendations. However, Estin said that rather than their actions being rooted in defiance, it may be that people often follow local crowds and conform to their community’s norms.
“There’s probably a lot of people who, if their friends and neighbors are getting vaccinated, are going to get vaccinated,” he said. “If their friends and neighbors are not [getting the vaccine], then they’re not going to [get] it, so in a sense, you don’t have that many rebels.”
Herd mentality can also be seen at the national level with a correlation between low vaccination rates and a state’s dominating political party. According to Vox, there is a clear political divide in vaccination rates seen in “blue” and “red” states, with states that voted for Trump in the 2020 election having lower vaccination rates compared to states that voted for Biden.
The conversation regarding vaccination has made people react with anger and blame when addressing opinions that don’t align with their own. This division in the political sphere and in other discussions can further hinder progress in vaccination rates, so it is important to listen to all perspectives before assuming the worst.
In response to the backlash towards the unvaccinated population, Vice Principal Jason Williams said that it is essential to refrain from critical language that can blame unvaccinated individuals. He said that assuming positive intentions will create civil discussions and lasting outcomes.
“A lot of the narrative, unfortunately, puts anti-vaxxers or people who don’t get the vaccine in an automatic ‘well, they just hate everything, and they don’t want to help make the world a better place,’” he said. “There could be other reasons, and we have to investigate, listen first and not just assume the worst.”
Sandra Nelson, a physician in the Newton Public Schools Medical Advisory Group, said that it is important to listen to the perspective of unvaccinated individuals, as they may have varying reasons to not get the vaccine.
“If I’m in a one-on-one situation with another person who doesn’t want the vaccine, I always ask them why,” she said. “Without understanding what someone’s hesitation is, it’s hard to know how to counsel them around what their concerns are.”
According to the New York Times, about 10% of Americans are tentative about the vaccine and are willing to be convinced to get it. This shows that conversations can help people assess risk factors and make a decision that is right for them.
Senior Jake Levy said that despite various health guidelines and regulations put in place, the government can’t ensure that every citizen is taking steps to be safe.
“People aren’t going to wear masks; you just can’t force everyone to wear masks,” he said. “You can make it a law, but it doesn’t mean people are going to obey the law.”
Despite challenges in mitigating the virus, Zaff said that if people rise above their individualistic outlooks, the country will be able to recover more efficiently.
“Personal rights and personal freedom matter, but the issue with COVID-19 goes beyond yourself,” she said. “We aren’t going to get anywhere unless more people start to care and more people start to realize that this is more than just them. It’s about the community, the country around them and the whole world.”