underpass sign that says "Let's Love Our Community"

The breaking point of individualism

What a whirlwind the two weeks have been. (I say that figuratively. Mother Nature, if you are reading this, please do not get any ideas.) In the midst of a pandemic and the largest earthquake Utah has seen in decades, state and local leaders have responded in rapid and productive ways. They deserve a tremendous amount of credit for the successful response Utah has had under the circumstances. 

These timely, coordinated responses underscore why competent public leadership is so critical to our communities. While some other states have been laissez-faire about canceling schools and public gatherings–and have even encouraged constituents to eat out at restaurants–Utah has treated COVID-19 as a serious threat to public health. While counties still need the ability to enforce shelter-in-place mandates, the response from the state has been encouraging. 

Times of crisis reveal where our true priorities lie. The situation we find ourselves in is unique, but the way we react to it is a reflection of who we are and what we care about the most. Utah’s successful response to dealing with coronavirus and an earthquake aren’t aberrations from our values–they are the direct result of our values. We are living in a real-time demonstration that when it comes down to it, our top priority is each other. 

Utah values community. That should be a lesson to all of us. 

Over the past years, some Utah leaders have spent their time in office relentlessly attacking the social safety net that holds us all together. State lawmakers fought bitterly against Medicaid expansion for Utah’s most vulnerable people, stonewalled attempts to secure paid leave for sickness or caring for family members, and cheered for industry deregulation while insisting that the free market will ensure corporate responsibility. But now, in the face of a pandemic and a natural disaster, we are all dependent on that safety net. Our health depends on our neighbor’s health. Our access to emergency care depends on our neighbor’s access. 

As COVID-19 cases multiply exponentially throughout the country, conservative thinkers have published truly dizzying takes in response. Sutherland Institute celebrated the lack of a coordinated federal response to the virus as “the miracle of freedom in action.” Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, rationalized that the U.S’s dysfunctional response and the resulting chaos is a “characteristically American effort against the outbreak.” 

The reason Utah has been successful is because we have had a coordinated public response that prioritizes the well-being of our communities over someone’s individual liberty to have a burger at Red Robin. It shouldn’t have to take a pandemic to illustrate that it is not safe for us to rely on confused, patchwork responses to address collective social needs. A strong public foundation is the floor that benefits us all collectively.

COVID-19 is forcing us to recognize that we have reached the breaking point of individualism. We have too long ripped holes in our safety nets, expecting individual good deeds to fill in the gaps. And while our community is banding together and performing inspirational acts of service and sacrifice, we will not be able to completely close that gap on our own. 

Responsive and responsible public leadership makes it easier for the rest of us to pull together in our individual spheres. I am grateful that Utah has closed schools and dine-in restaurants and bars to help flatten the curve. I am grateful for building codes that ensure many people will be safe in an earthquake. I am grateful for coordinated acts of charity and for pushes at the federal level to give emergency monetary relief to people whose income is affected by COVID-19. All of these things help keep our communities healthy and safe. Utah’s communities are, and must always remain, our top priority. 

Lauren is the policy director for Alliance for a Better Utah.

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