COVID and the Diné

May 14, 2022

From the May-June 2022 issue of News & Letters

Two years ago, when COVID-19 was raging, the rate of infection got so extreme in Gallup, New Mexico, that the entire town was quarantined. The freeway ramps were sealed off with orange cones. No one could enter or leave.

We visited Gallup in March 2022 to see what had happened. The population had decreased tremendously. The entire west end of town was empty—closed businesses and hardly any population; but the east end of town had open businesses. We noticed that all the people were wearing masks. I have never seen such a strict adherence to public health rules.

SERIOUSLY FIGHTING COVID-19

Most people living in Gallup are Navahos. The Diné, as they prefer to be called, are one of the largest Native American tribes in the U.S. Their land, which is owned collectively, extends over Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado and is apportioned according to membership in the tribe and any one of its numerous clans.

It was obvious that the Diné had made a serious commitment to fight the COVID pandemic. It showed the strikingly different attitudes the Diné have compared to a lot of people in the U.S. The Diné have a strong sense of group responsibility. When they, as a tribe, decided to adopt the CDC COVID guidelines, everyone went along. You wear a mask. You carry a vaccine card. You obey the rules because you feel responsible for others.

Compare this to the attitude of people who flout the rules and say, “I don’t have to wear a mask if I don’t want to.” “They’re taking away my freedom.” “I don’t believe in the vaccine.” That idea of freedom is warped.

For many their collective responsibility has eroded into a juvenile pig-headedness that sees only individual desires. It fuels the kind of behavior displayed since the beginning of the pandemic. This pig-headedness is euphemistically called “rugged individualism.” But “rugged individualism” is nothing more than a myth of an isolated individual, fostered by capitalism. Is it being actively promoted in the U.S. to hinder the positive effects of collective thinking and action?

THE POWER OF BEING UNITED

Groups are more powerful than individuals. When employees form a union, they are in a much better position to bargain with their employers than a single “rugged individual.” The company brings in union busting consultants who promote the idea that tough Americans are individuals. “You don’t need a union to represent you.” “What are you doing bringing in those socialists?”

The Diné, are connected to each other through their history and associations. It takes organizations like unions to give us a sense of belonging to a group with the power to confront bosses and other powerful interests. The myth of an isolated individual is more than a clever public relations gimmick to separate us, the people, from the best way we can advocate for ourselves. This myth keeps a lot of people in a perpetual state of juvenile narcissism.

We can’t go back to past forms of social cohesion. Out times demand a new sense of common humanity beyond the myth of the isolated individual fostered by capitalism.

–Charles Kimbrell

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