Covid-19 and the collectivist-individualist continuum.

Ivan Starrymist, December 2020

To lock down or to protect the vulnerable?  That is not the only question.  There are many questions, the most important of which is: What questions to ask about Covid-19?


Perhaps the answer is: Why is there a tendency for the left to support lockdowns and the right to support shielding the vulnerable?  There are many others, like: ‘Why did the West fail to protect itself by closing its borders until it was too late?’; ‘To what extent is the WHO corrupt?’; ‘Why did no government have the courage to allow healthy, young, volunteer citizens to be infected with mild doses of the virus, if they chose, during the summer to provide them with immunity and assist herd immunity?’ and ‘Why was the vaccine not offered before due process was complete to individual citizens, in particular those with comorbidities, who made a free choice to take it rather than risk contracting the virus?’


But the question about the tendency to favour lockdowns or shielding is the most interesting because it reveals a pattern that seems to transcend history.  Although the Great Barrington Declaration states that its proponents come “from both the left and the right”, the tendency is for the left to favour lockdowns and the right to favour shielding.  One problem with this is the definition of the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’, which in this age has become so confused as the render them more or less meaningless.  State intervention in the USA for Covid-19 alone shows that faith in the private sector to deal with the crisis was zero (not to mention during the financial crisis earlier this century) and nobody could credibly ignore success of Chinese capitalism with its state sanctioned billionaires.


In this age of confusion regarding political ideologies, the distinction between these two superpowers in dealing with C19 though is clear and expresses their native ideologies as much as any political theory: China’s strictly enforced lockdown versus America’s far more lenient approach.  China represents collectivism, America represents individualism. 


It would be interesting to see studies into how people's preferred responses relate to their worldview. The picture is already somewhat apparent, with collectivists favouring strict lockdown and individualists favouring herd immunity. But this is an impression gleaned from the media.  More studies into this would be good.


The question is most interesting because in this age of confused political ideologies, collectivism versus individualism is a tendency that may be observable.  Could, in fact, the tendency towards collectivism or towards individualism be the root of political ideologies themselves, or at least a part of it?  Throughout the volumes of literature on socialism and capitalism, could the underlying attraction to one or the other be a personal and collective tendency towards either collectivism or individualism?  If so, it seems likely the more vulnerable favour collectivism and the more secure in a society favour individualism.  This would explain why the traumatised survivors of the Cultural Revolution like Xi Jinping are so collectivist and why the billionaire Trump, having grown up at a time when the USA was the only superpower in the world and secure in his fortune, is so individualist.  But it would also explain why the powerless working classes were attracted to socialism in years gone by, and why the bourgeois captains of industry favoured more individualist capitalism.  This is a complicated theory though and one with many inconsistencies.  China does not have a welfare state and individuals are required to fend for themselves and find the resources to survive more than Western European citizens, the Republican Party espouses the virtues of individualism yet is itself a ‘party’, a collection of individuals with a common cause.  Moreover, the very act of voting, secretly, in a booth, is at once the most individualistic political act and the most participatorily collectivist political act.  While North Korea may be the ultimate collectivist society, it’s leader Kim Jong-un is the supreme individual.  The topic will not yield to a neatly constructed theory.


However, the favoured responses to C19 lockdowns may be quantifiable through studies and can, to an extent, be measured upon a continuum.  At one end is the Chinese style, total lockdown.  At the other is managed social distancing and protection of the vulnerable.  There is no ‘let it rip through the country’ option as this was only ever a fiction concocted to denounce an alternative view as immoral.  Aggressive assertions of moral superiority and denunciations of alternative views have hampered discussion of what is to be done.  With this continuum, however, questions can be asked and options discussed with greater clarity.


At one end of the continuum are A and B: the deaths and serious illnesses from C19 and the danger of an overpowered health service; at the other are Y and Z: deaths and serious illnesses caused by lockdown (cancer, mental health) and economic costs including unemployment.  In between and balanced upon the continuum is S: increase in state control and power, which can be seen as positive or negative depending on ideological position.


All of the elements are to a large degree unknowable and so the arguments must be acknowledged as theoretical.  The statistics on deaths are unreliable even before considering the impossibility of knowing if a death is from C19 or with C19.  Nonetheless, the elements can be weighed up to provide more clarity regarding ideological stance: the position of S upon the continuum.


For those favouring the collectivist, extreme lockdown, one question is: How much of a decrease in A and B and an increase in X and Y would cause you to change your position on lockdowns?  While for those favouring the individualist, managed shielding over lockdown the question is reversed: How much of an increase in A and B and a decrease in Y and Z would result in your acceptance of a lockdown?


No doubt this continuum would benefit from refinement and elements may be missing.  But when presented in this way, clarity and insight increase, the polar extremes lose weight as differences appear as positions on the continuum rather than aggressive, absolute, moral stances.  The focus of discussion and research can then be upon the elements and discovering more about them.  Argumentation can gain clarity and coherence by focussing on the choices involved in positioning S.  Maybe, just possibly, understanding of the attractions and affinities towards particular ideologies government policies can also be raised.

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