What the idea of 'personal responsibility' really means in a pandemic

We Americans are an interesting bunch. We cherish our independence. We love our rugged individualism. Despite having pride in our system of government, we really don't like government telling us what to do.

Since rebellion is literally how we were founded, it's sort of baked into our national identity. But it doesn't always serve us well. Especially when we find ourselves in a global pandemic.

Individualism—at least the "I do what I want, when I want" idea—is the antithesis of what is needed to keep contagious disease under control. More than anything in my memory, the coronavirus pandemic has tested our nation's ability to put up a united front, and so far we are failing miserably.

I hear a lot of the same complaints from people who decry government mandates to wear a mask or governors' stay-at-home orders. We don't need a nanny state telling us what we can and can't do! This is tyranny! This is dictatorship! What ever happened to personal responsibility?

I actually have the same question. What did happen to personal responsibility?


Anti-mask folks throw that phrase around a lot, but I don't think it means what they think it means. After all, if everyone were actually taking personal responsibility, we wouldn't be in the position we've found ourselves in—floundering in an out-of-control pandemic with an accelerating death toll and continuing economic devastation because of our ongoing, half-assed response to it.

Taking personal responsibility doesn't mean only looking out for yourself. It means being responsible for yourself, which includes doing the responsible thing for the society of which you are a part precisely because you are a part of it.

More than 400 years ago, the poet John Donne wrote these famous words, which are timelessly and universally true: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." We are connected with one another whether we like it or not. And because we are part of a whole, we have a responsibility toward the whole. The irony in this particular moment, of course, is that our connectedness is what's killing us. It feels counterintuitive that we must acknowledge our oneness by staying apart from one another, but that's what keeping a pandemic from destroying the whole requires.

Personal responsibility in a pandemic means choosing, as individuals, to exercise that responsibility we have toward one another. It means using our individual agency, our freedom of choice, to do the right thing for the whole. It means that even if I am not personally at high risk of complications or death from COVID-19, I take responsibility for how my personal actions affect others. If lifelong public servants who are at the top of the epidemiology field ask me to wear a mask to protect others and keep our country from floundering in a pandemic, I choose to wear a mask. If the public health officials in my state, who are generally some of the least appreciated people in our government, say that we need to keep our distance from one another to protect the vulnerable, I choose to abide by their guidelines.

Making the choice to do what public health officials are recommending is what being personally responsible looks like in a pandemic.

As an American who trusts most politicians about as far as I can throw them, I understand people's distrust of government. But just because a message is coming from government officials doesn't mean it's untrustworthy. Just because a mandate is coming form government officials doesn't mean it's tyrannical. Generally speaking, governor's are following the advice of public health officials—the people who have spent their lives and careers preparing for just such a time as this—and if you think public health officials are in the same category as the politicians you don't trust, well, you're probably overly paranoid.

The key here is that if people were actually good about taking personal responsibility, we wouldn't have to keep having government mandates in the first place. The countries that have managed to control the virus—New Zealand, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, to name a few—did so with a combination of swift and decisive governmental response and unified action on the part of the people. An effective pandemic response requires both. Guidelines from the government are useless if people don't comply, and people don't know what they should do if the government isn't clear about what needs to be done and why. Successful countries understood both things. America seems to have rejected both things.

Our government's handling has been terrible, yes, but Americans' tacit distrust of government is also not a virtue in this moment. By extending that distrust to public health officials, we are hurting ourselves and each other. We have sacrificed the societal freedom that would come with controlling the virus for individual freedom in the moment, which results in effectively losing individual freedom anyway because if the society we live in is negatively impacted by a virus, so are we.

"Live free or die" is too simplistic right now. In a pandemic, "live free or die" effectively means "live free and kill people." Is that really the kind of freedom we cherish?

The bottom line is that my right to do what I want, when I want, doesn't outweigh my responsibility to my fellow Americans. Not when there's a pandemic raging through the country. I sacrifice for the greater good because I am part of that greater good. I recognize that our collective freedom in the long run is more important than my individual freedom in the moment, and I take personal responsibility by doing my part to ensure our collective freedom.

We stay distanced because we're connected, and we isolate because we are not islands. And as John Donne wrote later in his poem, we see ourselves in one another and acknowledge what our essential oneness means as we watch the statistics rise:

"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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