The pandemic has been a measuring device of our humanity and our dysfunction. It has revealed American individuals both supporting each other and failing massively. Neighbors brought meals to shut-ins, but unmasked attendees at public events created super-spreader havoc. And even now, 35 percent of Americans say they’re either hesitant about getting vaccinated or will forgo it, threatening herd immunity.

Pedestrians walk past a billboard featuring Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with the Maori word for love, in Christchurch, New Zealand, last June 8. New Zealand has had 54 COVID-19 cases and 1 death per 100,000 population. Mark Baker/Associated Press, File

Whether the rags-to-riches rock star or glass ceiling-shattering female CEO, America exalts individuals beating the odds. Some believe our instinctual individualism explains why we have so many successful entrepreneurs – the Elon Musks and the Oprah Winfreys. People, who despite daunting obstacles, overcome. And while individualism has value, I believe this asset has perversely become our greatest weakness. Individuals acting alone usurp cooperation and undermine working collectively toward an agreed goal. The “lone” has grown from admirable to an almighty status in our national mythology. However, we all depend on and receive help from family, friends, towns, states and the federal government.

The Brookings Institute recently hosted a conference on COVID where several papers were released that concluded that if, from the beginning, we had socially distanced and worn masks, 400,000 Americans might still be alive. Let’s not be under any illusions: The deaths of 582,000 Americans are a catastrophic moral failure. But many countries avoided such death tolls by deliberately putting their collective needs ahead of individual wants. They wore masks and locked down en masse. Although South Korea and Japan are legendary for their social cohesion, another country caught my eye.

Matthew Milner’s and Richard Ngata’s recent Washington Post op-ed observes, while New Zealand is a small island state, its great success managing COVID should be summed up in one word: manaakitanga.

New Zealand has worked hard to incorporate the native Maori people into their society, including teaching Maori beliefs and culture in their schools, one of which, manaakitnaga, teaches that an individual should never put his or her needs ahead of the tribe’s. New Zealand’s choice to respect and incorporate Maori beliefs into their national culture has just paid an enormous dividend. When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told New Zealanders they needed to wear masks, they uniformly answered her call. COVID promptly went into remission. According to CNN’s World Health Tracker, the United States has had 9,972 cases and 165 deaths per 100,000. New Zealand has had 54 cases and 1 death per 100,000.

New Zealand made a deliberate choice to not only respect but also embrace Maori culture. In the process, they leveraged the Maoris’ sense of community. That wisdom benefited all New Zealanders. It saved countless lives, but it also reaped economic gain as it allowed them to reopen their businesses and public venues far ahead of other countries. In sharp contrast to America’s raw individualism, New Zealand tapped into the Maori sense of social solidarity.


Instead of succumbing to our instinct of individualism and its divisiveness, we should be harnessing the wisdom of our vast multicultural diversity. According to Shawna Chen and Russell Contreras of Axios, Native American tribes are way ahead of the general population in getting their people vaccinated. In fact, many tribes have vaccinated all their members and have moved on to help with vaccinating people outside their tribes. One reason for their success, Chen and Contreras suggest, stems from three core Native American beliefs that are tied to social solidarity:

• Recognize how their actions will affect the next seven generations.

• Act in honor of ancestors who fought to ensure their survival and elders who carry on their traditions and cultures.

• Hold on to ancestral knowledge in the ongoing fight to protect Mother Earth.

As we move forward along the pandemic’s arc, we should not only celebrate our diversity but also recognize that all cultures have something valuable to contribute to the American experience. They are an enormously underutilized resource. Within many of our cultures exists an ethic of care for the group – which could strengthen our nation. Rather than portraying Native people as cartoon mascots, or blaming innocent Asians for the virus, we could benefit from educating our children about the wisdom and community of their ancient cultures. It would enrich us as a people, and it might just save some lives.

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