In “How China Controlled the Coronavirus,” Peter Hessler discusses his experience working as a teacher in China during the pandemic. Towards the end of the article he discusses how drastically less successful the United States was at limiting the spread of Covid-19. The vast difference in the number of cases and deaths was tied to China’s more strict policies in response to Covid-19. Hessler notes one of his students saying an additional reason was that “Chinese value life over freedom, whereas Americans take the opposite approach.” Hessler seemed to lean away from this idea, pointing more towards a failure of leadership and institutions. However, I can’t help but somewhat agree with the student on this view of American values. Students at my school laughed when someone suggested that the pandemic might prevent us from having prom or graduation. The idea that we wouldn’t have the graduation ceremony we had been planning to have for four years seemed absurd and, most importantly, unfair.
The idea of an inalienable right to freedom is taught to children in the United States from as early as kindergarten. It is a core tenant of America whether or not the idea of universal freedom is truly upheld or not. So when people were told to stay home, wear a mask, and limit their interactions many began claiming their rights were being violated. We face restrictions of our autonomy daily, but these restrictions were new, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable. People protested the closing of states and argued for their right to get a haircut. Therefore, It does not seem like a stretch to suggest that America has in some ways come to value a sense of freedom and autonomy over life, largely as a byproduct of patriotic and nationalist teachings. The other day, my mother angrily showed me a Facebook post from a family member that almost explicitly reflected valuing freedom over life. He claimed it was unfair to require him to wear a mask because he had a right to put his life at risk if it was his decision (conveniently glossing over the negative health effects his decisions could have on others.) That family member recently contracted Covid-19.
All this being said, it is still important to remember the individual and their rights while making policy decisions such as those surrounding Covid-19. Something that seems like the clear course to saving lives may unintentionally harm some. For example, many were concerned about the closing of the school system in my town because many children rely on school meal plans to provide them with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The rights of these children had to be considered and a plan quickly put in place to continue providing these students with food while school was occurring online. There must be a balance within society between valuing life and valuing freedom, somewhat similar to Aristotelian ideas. There can be no flourishing without a society taking the proper steps to protect its citizens, but society must also remember to promote flourishing.