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Herb Rothschild Jr.: U.S. COVID deaths reveal our cultural weakness

The U.S. has 4.2% of the global population. We’ve accounted for about 20% of the world’s 1.2 million deaths from COVID-19. China has 18.4% of the global population. Its official death toll from the disease is 4,634. Some estimate that the actual total is four times that figure. For argument’s sake, let’s say China has suffered 24,000 deaths. That would be about 2% of global fatalities. Had its per capita death rate equaled ours, the number would have approached a million.

We may be tempted to attribute China’s success containing COVID-19 to its government’s thorough-going political and social control. That explanation won’t do, though, because China’s success hasn’t been unique among East Asian countries. Japan has experienced fewer than 2,000 deaths, South Korea fewer than 500 and Taiwan, astonishingly, only seven. All three are democracies with high degrees of personal freedom.

It’s true that, during the pandemic, our nation has had terrible leadership from the top, so terrible that sensible leadership by governors like Kate Brown has only been able to moderate, not undo, its damage. It’s also true that President Donald Trump had previously impaired our bureaucratic capacity to respond to outbreaks of contagious disease. Finally, our long-standing failure to assure universal access to quality health care made our poorer residents especially vulnerable to the plague.

That said, there’s more to say about our poor performance. Its comparison with that of East Asian nations points beyond the political to a cultural explanation. We have far less social cohesion than they do, and that’s because we have a weaker sense of collective responsibility. Indeed, that cultural failure largely explains our political failures — the election of Donald Trump and of governors who didn’t impose basic measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the resistance to the orders of governors who did, and our lack of a public health care system.

Our outsized focus on our self-interests and desires, which I attribute to the baleful influence of consumer capitalism, finds its ideological justification in the doctrine of rights. Even aspects of our shared lives that ought to be understood as social obligations must get framed as individual rights.

So, for instance, champions of universal health care now present it in the public forum as a human right. That’s a risky strategy. Will we have to frame adequate nutrition, affordable housing, a healthy environment, a living wage and everything else a proper society strives to provide its members as personal rights? If so, we’ll continue to make limited progress on an agenda of care for each other.

In 2015, I wrote a series of columns about rights vs. care. I analyzed through that lens both right-to-work vs. union shop and vaccinating school children. Those cases are more challenging than mask-wearing and social distancing, which ask so little of us. But all of them challenge us to weigh the value we place on being part of society.

To correct our chronic undervaluation of interdependence, we should make sure that all Americans experience the rewards of mutual responsibility and care. Team sports and military service train young people to merge their self-interests with that of larger groups, but their emphasis on defeating opponents countervails social solidarity.

My main recommendation — one I’ve made before — is two years of national service for everyone, preferably with agencies of social uplift at home or abroad. I never hear returned Peace Corps volunteers asserting their right to carry around an AK-47.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.