The coronavirus has burst asunder the myth of rugged individualism that permeates American society. Contagious diseases such as COVID-19 and its Delta, and now Omicron variant, know no borders. All social classes, ethnicities, races, religions, languages, and nationalities are vulnerable to infection. While COVID has disproportionately impacted low income and minority communities who do not have the luxury of working from home or sheltering in place, and whose jobs and housing amplifies the risk of virus contagion, the virus has still spread everywhere.
Contagious diseases demand public health responses, and collective responsibility for one another’s health. While obesity, diabetes, and some cancers can be mitigated through individual lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise, and smoking cessation, treatment of highly contagious respiratory diseases such as COVID-19 necessitates social responsibility and the broadest medical interventions. While individual lifestyle choices may reduce or amplify one’s risk of acquiring chronic conditions, with infectious disease it is different. One’s choice to wear a mask, avoid a party, or get vaccinated directly impacts others’ health.
Getting vaccinated for example is not a lifestyle choice like abstaining from fast food to reduce the risk of heart disease. Vaccines reduce the risk of virus spread—my choice to get vaccinated directly impacts the chance that my friends, family, and coworkers will contract COVID, and in turn, spread the virus to others. One could be young, healthy, have no symptoms, and still carry the virus, spreading it to the immunocompromised, aged, and vulnerable family members, friends, and acquaintances. Young healthy individuals may feel mask wearing and social distancing limit their freedom. But their actions impact the health of the frail and vulnerable they interact with.
With contagious disease, what applies to individuals also applies to nations. Indeed, rather than a society of individuals beholden to none but ourselves, or a self-interested nation state trumpeting America First, contagious diseases demonstrate through millions of deaths and diseased that we are dependent on each other.
Public health interventions recognize the interconnectedness of the human species. Economic lockdowns, social distancing, quarantining, mask mandates and vaccine uptake are social interventions whose impact is magnified far beyond the benefit to one individual. To avoid contagion, everyone’s personal decisions impact the health of all.
Indeed, we are learning that inadequacies in the public health and healthcare system of individual nations imperils all. If COVID-19 is allowed to spread and mutate anywhere on earth, the vaccination efforts of individual nations might be for naught. Travel bans may slow the virus’s spread—but in an interdependent global economy, contagious respiratory diseases have easily crossed borders and boundaries. First identified on November 9th in South Africa, within three weeks the Omicron variant has spread to the United Kingdom, Israel, Hong Kong, Botswana, and Belgium. One nation is not safe unless the residents of all nations are.
While the first vaccines were distributed to wealthy nations, COVID spread in India and Africa, leading to the rise of new variants. With wealthy western nation states such as the United States and Germany protecting private multinational pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer’s and Moderna Therapeutics’ intellectual property rights to profit from COVID-19 vaccines, the third world had reduced access to these lifesaving medical interventions. As COVID spread throughout India it mutated, leading to the Delta variant which surged through the United States this past summer. Now, with African nations struggling to vaccinate their populations, a new unknown variant dubbed Omicron has spread; Worried that this new variant would spread easily, evade human immune systems, and render vaccines less effective, the United State stock market crashed on Black Friday.
Now that the virus has demonstrated our interconnectedness, what should be done? Intellectual property rights to COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics should be waived. Global dissemination of these medications should not be left to the profit motives of a handful of multinational corporations. Rich nations should invest in the public health capacity and healthcare systems of poor nations. Governments should ensure access to healthcare for underserved populations in their own countries. Access to COVID-19 tests, medical care, and vaccines should be available to all without regard for ability to pay. Investments in disease surveillance, laboratory capacity, health services, and public health will mitigate the pain of economic shutdowns, travel bans, overwhelmed hospitals, and mass deaths.
Just as industry’s freedom to pollute the air and water harms the health of neighboring populations, so do anti-vaxxers’ and anti-maskers’ “freedom” to spread disease harm or even kill the aged and vulnerable who are more likely to become seriously ill or die from COVID-19. Human beings are not just rugged individuals pursuing individual health and wellbeing. All our fates are bound together.