How the discourse of personal responsibility against Covid has become socially destructive

10 March, 2021

personal responsibility

For months, even during the worst weeks of the second and third waves, governments have tried to weasel out of the inadequacy of anti-Covid measures through appeals to personal responsibility. But personal responsibility in the absence of sufficient containment measures and lockdown has proven ineffectual time and time again, country after country. With a population much more isolated than usual and more vulnerable to the media, the emphasis on the supposed irresponsibility of youth has only served, according to data from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), to atomize us and generate an unprecedented feeling of distrust of others.

In this article

First of all: Is personal responsibility important against Covid?

Yes, it is important. But the political response to an epidemic like Covid cannot be based on personal responsibility alone.

On an average subway commute to work during rush hour we meet in a short period of time and in an enclosed space with more than 2,000 people. Personal protective measures (facemasks, regular hand washing, avoiding touching the face and mucous membranes, keeping our distance when possible from people we talk to, etc.) decrease the likelihood that an encounter on those terms with an infected person will translate into contagion for us. But the odds are still there: an unconscious letting down of guard, an accidental brush or undue confidence can trigger what we wish to avoid.

More importantly: contagion will inevitably occur in large numbers. Because what defines social life, what differentiates it from community and family life, is that it is made up of large numbers and an uncontrollable multitude of personal interactions, most of them unconscious.

Thus, personal protective measures are not enough. They are useful to reduce the probability of contagion given a social situation, but what is decisive is the social situation itself: the number, form and diversity of interpersonal interactions. That is to say, political decisions are decisive.

Where did the insistence on personal responsibility against Covid come from

Since the ruling class found that the kind of closures and confinements needed to stop the continuing tally of deaths necessarily involved shutting down a good part of business activity, and that this in turn threatened to produce a default sinkhole in the banks, the whole pandemic policy has been focused on saving investments before lives.

This is why, in the middle of the second wave, media messages were already insisting that the pandemic was no big deal, that some personal precautions were enough to avoid infecting and being infected and that if there were to be a third wave it would be due to our own irresponsibility. The spread of the pandemic, presented as a natural disaster, would not be the result of the success or failure, of the sufficiency or insufficiency of both public measures and the social conditions created by them, but of our individual behavior. A textbook victim-blaming strategy.

Ducking the issue by blaming the spread of Covid on a lack of personal responsibility is socially destructive

personal responsibility covid

The Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) has just released a study on the social effects of Covid in Spain comparing the first and second waves of the pandemic. One fact is striking: how media pressure and the discourse on personal responsibility have only served to generate distrust towards neighbors and in the end encouraged millions of people to lower their guard.

When respondents were asked in April 2020 how many of them complied with health and safety measures, the result was overwhelming: 96.1%. That said, when an estimate was made of the extent to which they thought everyone else complied with the same measures, the result dropped to 78.7%.

That said, the researchers note that stated responsibility decreases when other citizens are perceived as not abiding by the rules. But biasing that perception was precisely what the media and politicians were devoted to.

They all had – and have – as much interest in displaying business deaths as in hiding those of people, but also in presenting the second wave as a consequence of a supposed lack of personal responsibility and not as what it was: the result of the inadequacy of the measures adopted by politicians.

So, when the same respondents were asked again in January this year… only 78.1% followed all the safety measures. And the spiral continued, fueled by the footage of clandestine parties on the opening news: they no longer even thought that most of their neighbors complied with basic safety measures, they evaluated the amount of neighbors following these measures as just 41.9%.

The “sacred pandemic union” spells more social atomization and the death of hundreds every day

personal responsibility against covid... and social trust

All this has achieved is to make people’s distrust of their neighbors even greater than their distrust of governments. Incredibly and despite all evidence they succeed in saving the pharmaceutical laboratories’ image and the experts from becoming tarnished, which is a true measure of the level of orchestrated disinformation between media and governments.

These are the same people who urged us to unite. That is to say to close ranks around politician’s management. A year later, we can be certain that the sacred pandemic union is no better than any other sacred union.

In order to maintain the course of the economy (=accumulation) they need to produce the greatest distrust towards other people there has been since the savage repression of the Stalinist and Francoist counter-revolution years. Their unity, like the latter one, involves disintegration and atomization.

Their goal is anti-human: to push forward without resistance an investment agenda no matter what, an agenda that irremediably costs tens of thousands of lives. That is why its unity can only be anti-social and anti-historical. It no longer contributes, it is no longer timely. The alternative to the slaughter, miseries and disasters will never come anymore from the current ruling class, its media, its pundits, its industries nor its politicians.

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