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This pandemic will expose who we are as a country

“We’re bumping up against the limits of excessive American individualism and market society.”

The normally bustling Pentagon City Mall in Arlington, Virginia, is nearly deserted on March 17, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

As the coronavirus sweeps across the US, a term you’ve probably heard a lot is “social distancing”: a way to flatten the epidemic curve by asking people to stay home and limit their nonessential travel.

While social distancing is our best tool for slowing the spread of this virus, it’s also likely to create what my Vox colleague Ezra Klein has called a “loneliness epidemic.” In a fragmented society like ours, asking people to isolate themselves for an extended period will be hard on vulnerable populations, like older people and those with disabilities and existing medical conditions.

To reduce those effects, we’ll need what Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, calls “social solidarity.” We’ll have to care about more than “our own personal security,” he wrote in a New York Times article. We’ll have to knock on our older neighbor’s door, call friends and loved ones, volunteer to deliver food to people who can’t leave their homes, and whatever else we can do to be of use to the people around us.

But the reality, Klinenberg says, is that American culture will make this kind of collective effort difficult. We live in a deeply individualistic society, and that way of thinking is corrosive to the cooperation we now need. Yet despite all that, Klinenberg believes there are many things you can do individually to make a significant difference.

I spoke to him by phone about how we can promote more solidarity in this tumultuous time, why the costs of social distancing are so high for marginalized populations, and why extreme situations like this one reveal deep truths about who we are as a country.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

What happens to societies under sustained periods of “social distancing”?

Eric Klinenberg

I don’t think we have a long track record of this, so it’s hard to say. We do know that there’s variation from society to society, state to state. As a sociologist, what I expect is that these extreme situations expose the essence of who we are and what we value.

If you have a society that holds the public good in high regard, and that has been bolstered by strong investments in public institutions, you reap real rewards in moments like this. But if you live in a society that doesn’t value the common good, that doesn’t have strong social bonds, then periods like this will be much harder for everyone.

Sean Illing

If that’s right, the US is especially unprepared for this crisis. We’re politically divided, socially fragmented, and we live in a deeply individualistic culture — that seems like a nightmarish cocktail at a moment like this.

Eric Klinenberg

It is, and I’m really worried about it. When you see videos of 20-somethings dancing in crowded nightclubs across the country, that’s a sign that the urgent public health messaging about why it’s important to be physically distanced is not getting across. It’s a sign that people just don’t care about the consequences of their actions for others.

When you have politicians telling residents that if they’re healthy it’s fine to go out to restaurants, bars, to support their local businesses, that’s a problem. When you have the most popular cable news channel in the country raising questions about the scientific legitimacy of the crisis, and praising the bumbling leader as if he’s doing everything right, you’re sending a very confusing message to the public.

In the best-case scenario, a diverse and fragmented society would be a kind of testing ground where you could see which places operate best and then model their programs. But that’s not the situation we’re in. What we have is widespread confusion and dysfunction. That’s why I’m nervous.

Sean Illing

Let’s set America’s cultural pathologies aside for a second and assume that, as things get more dire, more and more people will be practicing social distancing. Which population groups suffer the most under that kind of social isolation?

Eric Klinenberg

Well, there’s different varieties of suffering, so I am concerned about poor people who are already living paycheck to paycheck, who are already on the edge, who are losing their jobs and not getting enough support to pay the bills, who will be unable to feed themselves and their children, and possibly worse. It’s incredibly serious.

And there are real health concerns for people who already live alone and are isolated, who really suffer from lack of social contact. We have a massive number of Americans who live alone and who are aging alone. Under ordinary circumstances, or under ordinary conditions, they can go out into public and find companionship in libraries, and senior centers, and parks, and other shared gathering places, but at a time like this, they’re at real risk of falling through the cracks.

Sean Illing

I want to talk about what we can do to help those people, but first I’d love to know if we have a lot of data showing the impact of social distancing on marriages, on relationships, on mental health, or any other relevant indicators?

Eric Klinenberg

I’m not aware of any solid data on this, but you could see it going either way. The best-case scenario is that families hunker down together, and come to appreciate that they have each other, and learn to cherish fundamental things that we take for granted too often.

The worse-case scenario is that couples are stuck together under periods of incredible stress and anxiety, and if they lack the skills and emotional resources to manage the intense feelings that they’ll have, you could see a lot of relationships fall apart.

So it’s an open question as to whether nine months from now we have a baby boom or a divorce spike.

Sean Illing

Are there any other analogous experiences in the past that we can learn from right now?

Eric Klinenberg

We’ve seen extreme social distancing responses in China, and we could certainly learn something from them, but we have to remember these are very different situations. There are much higher levels of surveillance in China and also much more compliance from the public. Their culture is much less individualistic than our culture. People don’t worship the market in the same way we do.

America also has a paucity of public programs. We have a weak public health system, weak public support for all kinds of caring activities, and we rely mostly on the marketplace and on ourselves. But now we’re at a moment where the market is failing and we’ve been made far weaker. We, as individuals and families, can only do so much when we’re on our own, so I think we’re bumping up against the limits of excessive American individualism and market society.

Sean Illing

What you’re saying is true, and all of America’s cultural weaknesses are being exposed right now. But if we’re going to get through this, people are going to have to step up on their own and do their part. You say the only antidote to social distancing is “social solidarity.” Can you lay out your vision?

Eric Klinenberg

Social solidarity is the strength we gain as a collective. It’s what happens when we recognize our interdependence and linked fate. When solidarity is stronger, we’re more likely to invest in each other’s well-being, to make individual sacrifices for the common good. We’re more equal, more just, more honest with ourselves and each other.

When social solidarity is low, we see runaway inequality. We see social atomization. We see disagreement over basic facts. We’re probably close to a record low in American solidarity right now. The country is bigger and more isolated than it’s ever been. And this is a social crisis on top of our public health crisis.

Sean Illing

And yet it’s possible that this is the kind of shock event that changes our culture in profound ways. You’ve argued that crises can be “switching points for states and societies.” What does that mean?

Eric Klinenberg

It means there are some crises in which our convictions get tested. Ideology can fold more quickly than you think when your health and your life is on the line. Think about how many anti-vaxxers would walk away from a coronavirus vaccine right now — I suspect a lot of them would change their minds in a hurry.

So I’m not totally pessimistic about our situation. I think it’s moments like this that compel us to support one another in new ways. And already I’m seeing all kinds of small, local programs where people who want to help are finding new ways to do it, and that goes for everything from finding ways to make home meal deliveries to older people who feel too afraid to go outside, to culture and education programs for parents whose children are stuck at home.

People are stepping up.

Sean Illing

I think a lot of people find it hard to embrace social solidarity while social distancing at the same time. How do you connect with people when you’re forced to self-isolate?

Eric Klinenberg

Some of us will have to leave our houses some of the time. We have to get food. We have to get medicine. We have to go for walks, and move around, and so we’re going to need some people to do deliveries of food to older people, and people with underlying medical conditions, who really need to hunker down. And already there are local projects to set up new food delivery systems for those who can do it. It’s obviously not easy because there are risks involved, but there’s no way to get food from the grocery store or restaurant into someone else’s kitchen without some human effort.

I’m talking about small-scale solidarity, about what you can do as an individual to help people in your neighborhood, but there’s also larger acts of social solidarity, which involve making demands on the government to make paid sick leave mandatory during a crisis, or to provide additional Social Security payments or a universal basic income to everyone, at least during a crisis.

Cutting the interest rates to zero is not the only way that you can boost an economy in a moment like this, and so I think it would be an act of solidarity to push the policies that are better for ordinary people, too.

Sean Illing

Any other recommendations for people who are reading this and want to engage constructively but don’t know how?

Eric Klinenberg

I think it goes from the very basic, which is to pick up your phone and text or call the people in your life you’re concerned about, or just friends you haven’t spoken to for a while, to say hello and check in. There’s something profoundly affirming about staying connected in a moment like this, and showing some compassion.

And doing these things will boost your own mood. It feels good to be engaged, to care for other people. The basic sense of solidarity that comes from feeling like you’re in it together with other people. These are the moments to embrace that.

I’d also recommend calling homeless shelters in your neighborhood, and seeing if there’s anything they need, anything you can do. Find out who’s running the senior centers in your city or community, and see if they need assistance, or if they have programs to try to provide contact for older people who are isolated.

I have friends who are single, without children, who have started creating shared programming online for people who are stuck at home with children. I think there are a wide variety of things that we can do, and at times in our history the American capacity for civic imagination and innovation has been impressive.

Unfortunately, when we talk about innovation these days, we’re mainly talking about figuring out ways to make more money. I think this is a moment where we have to shift our priorities and put our minds to work on protecting each other.

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