Life vs. Freedom: a comparison of the Chinese and American COVID responses

In his article “How China Controlled the Virus”, Peter Hessler recalls his experience as an English professor in Sichuan during the Chinese response to the COVID pandemic, describing strict policies of isolation, community enforcement and shaming, and a strong sense of sociality. Although the pandemic originated in Wuhan, China, China was actually among the first countries to get a hold of the virus’ spread. China’s response was in sharp contrast to that of the United States, where the virus infections and deaths are still at an all time high. Hessler generalizes the difference between these two nations’ pandemic responses as the following: “Chinese value life over freedom, whereas Americans take the opposite approach.” 

This statement is unsurprising. America has always valued individual rights and democracy, which in many cases has proved to be an ideal form of government. However, it’s imperative to recognize when certain situations require a more communitarian approach, particularly when it comes to public health issues. Heeding expert advice on wearing masks, social distancing, etc should be regarded as a social responsibility in order for the country to get back on its feet because failing to do so would first and foremost be putting others’ rights to life at risk. However, it would be unfair to say that the failure of an effective American response proves the weaknesses of democratic values as a whole, since several other democratic nations have done a much better job of controlling the virus than the US has. Rather, it points more to America’s deterioration of leadership, a lack of a national response, the unhindered spread of misinformation, and the politicization of health issues. 

However, the extremities of the Chinese response are also, in many ways, equally as dangerous. Although China was able to effectively control the virus spread, the story of “the Liupold Bloom of northeastern Sichuan” who had been in medical isolation for sixty-five days shows the severe psychological damage that the strict lockdowns and isolation measures had on individuals. Factors like the economy, autonomy, and the mental wellbeing of Chinese citizens were in many ways disregarded.

The dangers of both extreme perspectives on handling public health crises then begs the question: where is the balance? For starters, I believe that misinformation is deleterious to any pandemic response. Additionally, because the benefits of measures like mask-wearing outweigh any sort of trivial inconvenience of wearing them, some extent of paternalism here is justified. Other policies are more nuanced, but it’s hard not to wonder, had America at least kept these two assertions in consideration, where would we be now?

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