By Daniel Goldberg
The failure to control the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States rests, in part, on the individualist nature of our public health responses.
Public health simply does not work well when we base our interventions on the individual level. This is known as “methodological individualism,” and the evidence suggests it is both ineffective and can expand existing health inequalities. It is problematic in any public health context, but especially in pandemic response and control.
Take, for example, the ongoing debate over mask mandates. Multiple governors have refused to issue mask mandates, instead simply requesting that people don masks. The objection, interestingly, is not to the idea of masking as a public health intervention, but to the existence of a mandate itself.
Yet a model of public health which consists of nothing more than pleading with individuals to avoid behaving in ways injurious to public health would be an abject failure. Imagine if, instead of imposing minimum requirements for clean water, we simply asked regulated industries to avoid polluting watersheds. Or perhaps instead of passing laws discouraging or even criminalizing obviously harmful behavior, we simply asked people to avoid driving drunk.