Tribalism and the Pandemic

People walk through a nearly empty Times Square during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, March 19, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
COVID-19 has thrust interdependence on America’s warring factions, undermining the idea that any one group is more essential to the nation than any other.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I f there’s anything to be said for pandemics, it might be their stone-cold egalitarianism. In practically every country in the world, elites die at lower rates from violence and disease because they live in safer neighborhoods, have better access to food, water, and medicine, and can buy or bribe their way out of many problems. This creates a hierarchy of suffering not only between countries, but within them as well. The tiny West African nation of Liberia, for example, has one of the highest poverty rates in the world, and one of the lowest life expectancies. For the past 30 years it has been pummeled by relentless waves of violence and tropical disease. But if you’re a wealthy Liberian — and endemic corruption has produced many — you can sit these ordeals out in London or New York.

Now a reckoning has arrived that cannot, it seems, be bribed. Not only are affluent countries highly vulnerable to COVID-19, but affluent people are vulnerable as well. COVID-19 arrived in this country by airplane, which means that international travelers, some of them extraordinarily wealthy, were among the first to test positive for the disease. Americans have had the odd experience of watching movie stars, politicians, and professional athletes get sick at the same time as — if not before — the general public.

There are few other horrors, it seems, that hand out their calling card so equitably. Most threats do not afflict all segments of society equally — violent crime is much lower in the suburbs than in the inner city, for example — so it’s possible for someone in suburbia to feel that crime is not their problem. (And in a sense, they’re right.) What a shock, then, to be confronted by a threat that so easily hurdles barriers of wealth, race, and geography. Only a massive asteroid impact would seem to threaten all of humanity in the same indiscriminate way.

Unlike those of asteroids, a pandemic’s impact can be blunted if people isolate from one another — but the entire population has to do it. So for perhaps the first time in the history of our nation, every demographic group needs every other demographic group in order to survive. Elites can no longer imagine that their “safe” neighborhoods will continue to protect them — the disease is just too contagious. (Granted, they may be able to isolate more easily than everyone else, particularly the poor, but that still won’t save them in the long run.) Conservatives can no longer pretend that their fate isn’t inextricably tied to liberals’, and vice versa. Religious people can no longer tell themselves that non-believers are morally irrelevant. Hovering over every conceivable divide in this country is the new truth that we are all equal before the disease, and therefore we all need each other equally. What a healthy thing for a democracy to experience.

In 1915, an earthquake struck Avezzano, Italy, and killed 30,000 people in under a minute. The worst-hit areas had a mortality rate of 96 percent; it was as if they had been hit by a nuclear bomb. The survivors dug themselves out of the rubble but had to wait days for help, and during that awful time it was noted that distinctions of wealth and class all but disappeared. “An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain,” one survivor observed. “The equality of all men.”

The rough equality produced by suffering and danger is not new. For hundreds of thousands of years, our hunter-gatherer ancestors mostly lived in groups of 30 to 50 people who were completely dependent on one another for survival. Core survival groups tend to be fairly egalitarian because if everyone is indispensable, everyone has leverage. Nowhere is this more apparent than in combat, where race, education, and social class are almost completely irrelevant to one’s standing in the group. Furthermore, contributing to the common good during a crisis can produce a profound sense of meaningfulness and well-being. Admissions to psych wards famously went down in London during the Blitz, for example, and New York City experienced a six-month decline in suicide rates after the attacks of 9/11.

One of the great victories of modern society is that it removed risk and uncertainty from the daily lives of most people. Inadvertently, however, that deprived them of the experience of collaborating with one another; very few Americans imagine that they, individually, are critical to the nation’s survival. (The entire point of a nation, in fact, is to spread risk out so that no one person or group is indispensable.) The coronavirus has changed that almost overnight. Not only can one infected individual infect dozens of others, but every demographic in the country must be enlisted to help fight the disease. This interdependence may finally put to rest the idea that any one group is more essential to our country than any other.

Are you a liberal who believes that Trump and his supporters created this crisis by not taking it seriously? Fine — but eventually you’re going to need them on board to help protect you and your loved ones from the disease. Are you a conservative who believes that immigrants and socialists are destroying this country? You can self-quarantine all you want, but that won’t save you unless those groups do too.

When I was in Afghanistan with a platoon of American soldiers, one of them said to me, “It’s weird — there’s guys in the platoon who straight up hate each other, but we’d all die for each other.” Any group of hunter-gatherers would understand that sentiment immediately — their survival would depend on it. We are a great, complex nation of hundreds of millions of people, but our survival may now depend on it as well.

Sebastian JungerMr. Junger is the author of Tribe and War, and a co-director of the award-winning combat documentary Restrepo.

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