The White House briefing today had Obama written all over it. It’s themes were Obama, it’s tone of quiet, serious confidence were Obama. The sense of total command of the situation was Obama. There was the Obama-ese call for “personal responsibility.” Government can’t do everything. There are things we each have to take personal responsibility for.
Fine. I don’t disagree. But I think there are some things missing from this frame. One is that it isn’t a binary choice, government or the individual. We all live in a set of overlapping communities: work, home, neighborhood, civic organizations, churches, professional groups, etc. Our success as communities will depend crucially on whether neighbors help each other. Calls for individual responsibility can too easily slip into a brutal survivalist mentality that prepares for the infrastructure collapse apolcalypse. In that scenario it’s everyone for him/herself. But independently of government there is the fundamental question about what community members will choose to do for each other.
That’s not inconsistent with Obama’s vision, but I’d like to see more talk about it instead of the alleged pole opposites of government and individual. Even those things that would seem to be the domain of the individual — personal hygiene (hand washing), proper cough and sneeze etiquette, not traveling or working if you’re sick, all things stressed at the White House briefing and the CDC briefings — may depend on others. If you work, you need to have hand hygiene available, either with purse or pocket gels or sinks. Employers could provide that for workers and materially increase compliance. More importantly, keeping kids out of school or staying home if you aren’t well can be infeasible without adequate sick leave or child care policies. It’s fine to talk about staying home when sick as an individual responsibility, and in some sense it is. But what about the responsibility of the employer? If they don’t want workers to work sick (and frankly, many employers don’t care), they could and should — as a matter of their responsibility — make it possible or easier or more secure for workers to stay home.
We are interdependent to an extraordinary degree, which is one reason swine flu is able to spread. We aren’t isolated from each other. That’s a weakness from the infectious disease perspective, but it is a tremendous strength from the public health perspective. If we don’t recognize this up front, it’s going to be a much rougher ride.