Columns, Coronavirus, Opinion

Social Science Weekly: COVID-19 and the myth of the “common enemy”

It is true that in times of extraordinary political polarization, only a common enemy can unite us. Let’s test this theory using the ultimate common enemy and shared interest: an infectious disease that knows no borders and targets the most vulnerable among us.  

Normally a pandemic of this sort would be hard to come by, but I’m sorry to say we’re in luck. That is, we’ve been running this experiment for quite some time now. Well … are we more united because of it? 

Hardly. It seems like coronavirus is breeding social distrust as easily (and as suddenly) as it has burdened our healthcare system.

Retailers across the country have begun to shutter, boarding up their windows and doors in anticipation of looting. In what I can only describe as one of the most pessimistic and insulting presumptions about the American people, police departments in major metropolitan cities have beefed up patrols in a proactive effort to guard retailers from the raids that are sure to come. This is how suspicious we have become of one another, apparently. 

Putting it mildly, this also sends a fairly disconcerting message to the everyday shopper. What do the stores suppose they are preventing? A battle-royale of deranged buyers, foaming at the mouth with a ruthless zeal for the next kill? Are these the same ordinary, pleasant people whose products they were bagging only weeks before, and who they would smilingly point to the returns section when asked? 

Worse still, firearms sales have launched into the stratosphere. BBC just reported that gun sales have reached record-breaking numbers, amounting to the highest spike since the Federal Bureau of Investigation began collecting information on private gun ownership. Almost 1.2 million background checks were carried out within the span of a single week in March. In an 80 percent increase compared to the same month last year, March saw more than 3.7 million background checks and registrations overall. 

This all raises an ominous question. What are these arsenals for, exactly? A neutral, independent observer might assume either war, armageddon or some far-fetched combination from a graphic novel. Do these stockpiling neurotics, the enthusiasts together with the first-time panic-buyers, imagine we are on the cusp of total chaos with raiders and marauders roaming the streets, blissfully unopposed by law enforcement? 

But if this is war, and if there is any enemy we should turn against, surely it is the disease, right? 

We are learning something very interesting about ourselves. One of the most politically significant aspects of the Trump administration has been that we are seeing greater polarization across party lines than we have in recent memory. No one can seem to shut up about it. 

Only a towering existential threat that knows no borders could change this, it was said. Such a calamity would provoke an unprecedented outpouring of solidarity and international cooperation, it was said. Then we would stop pointing fingers. Only then would we set aside our political differences and rise to the occasion. All of humanity would stand, hand-in-hand, to defend itself.

As you may have noticed, this hasn’t been the story. In point of fact, the response could hardly have been more fractured or the threat more politicized, in particular while the pandemic was still emerging. Retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrstall, Senior Fellow at Yale University Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, researches and teaches on the nature of social cohesion under haphazard circumstances.

In a recent interview he insightfully noted, “What we’ve been doing since is largely fighting this as fifty separate state battles, as though each state and, really, each municipality is on their own to fight this virus.”

“But the very nature of an opportunistic threat like this,” he continued, “is that you must be united. If you want to win a war the way you do it is you break your enemy into pieces and you defeat them in detail. If you want to lose a war, you do the opposite.” 

Let’s try not to do the opposite.


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