Heard on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson

American Individualism Doesn’t Help In A Pandemic

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Image credit: Reza Aulia / Unsplash

On Detroit Today, host Stephen Henderson and author Meghan O’ Rourke lead a conversation on how the American tradition of individualism runs headlong into the shared sacrifice needed in the coronavirus pandemic.

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So much of our lives in this country is about individual achievement and autonomy.

And that extends to the idea of self-reliance, the need for everyone to take care of themselves. 

Individualism goes from the daily, small decisions that we make, to our whole social structure. The risks of that is becoming ever more apparent to us.” — Meghan O’Rourke, author

But how does that work in the middle of a pandemic, which slams head-on into all of those notions? Not just with its disruption of day-to-day routine, but also because it requires us to think about each other, and not just ourselves. 

A pandemic like coronavirus requires us to shift our thinking, perhaps in profound ways, from taking care of ourselves to worrying about humanity. It asks us to lean into our connection and obligation to others. And before it’s over, that may happen in ways that we have yet to contemplate. 

That’s where we begin the discussion today, with the question of whether coronavirus might inspire a greater sense of community.

Listen: How individualism can hurt us in a crisis.

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Meghan O’Rourke is an author and editor of The Yale Review.

I was struck by the fact that so many of us were having a really difficult time shifting in the face of pretty overwhelming evidence that we needed to scale back and stop going to large events,” says O’Rourke. Read her essay for The Atlantic, The Shift Americans Must Make to Fight the Coronavirus

This is a global pandemic, anyone resisting the idea needs to look at international newspapers to see how real it is.” says O’Rourke.


I sing for a living for assisted living centers, and they’ve cancelled all my work for the month. I have high respect for flattening the curve. We don’t know the scope yet of this. So it’s really scary to me that my living can be wiped away with the prudence that’s taking place. I respect it, but it’s scary.” - Christine in Dearborn

We are parents of a 4 and 6-year old, so this morning I woke up and freaked out, because schools are closed. I went through a lot of emotions, but settled on being fortunate and grateful. We are going to be disrupted, significantly, but we are going to get through it. We are a lot more flexible than other families. It’s really interesting to see how we can work together and be village without being physically together.” - Erin in Ferndale

I’m a spinal cord injured guy. The concept that hasn’t been discussed is our own mortality. People are denying that they’re going to die.” - Conrad in Tampa

Detroit Today

Dynamic and diverse voices. News, politics, community and the issues that define our region. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stephen Henderson, Detroit Today brings you fresh and perceptive views weekdays at 9 am and 7 pm.


This post is a part of Coronavirus in Michigan.

101.9 WDET, Detroit’s NPR Station, is committed to providing accurate, up-to-date information on coronavirus, and it's related illness COVID-19, in Michigan. 

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