In his essay “How China Controlled the Virus”, Peter Hessler offers a unique cross-cultural perspective on the public health response to COVID, as an American professor living and teaching in Sichuan when the pandemic struck. In his essay, he articulates the day-to-day living, highlighted by constant surveillance and isolation during the worst of the pandemic. As Hessler explains, the lockdown was much stricter than what happened in the United States, driven by a combination of restrictive orders from government officials and by strong values of hard work and cooperation shown in Chinese culture. These measures appeared extreme, but it soon appeared that they were necessary to stamp out community spread of COVID in China. As Hessler’s life returned to normal in China, he watched as American cases continued to rise, with no apparent response from the federal government. This complete reversal of trajectories in response to the same virus may have been predicted based on the different approaches to government, the idea of state, and the moral implications of these power structures.
Aristotelian philosophy, on the surface, appears to be another individualistic approach to morality. He writes about the importance of achieving “eudaimonia”, or the most excellent state of being, through continuous good actions. His philosophy focuses on gaining experience, cultivating good habits and making the “right” choices. In a modern Western context, these seem like individual characteristics. People, not societies, should build their own good habits and make the decisions that seem correct to them. This interpretation, while taken out of its original context, fits seamlessly into an American perspective of morality. As shown by the pandemic response, the onus was put mostly on individuals. Without stringent lockdowns or mask mandates like those in other countries, Americans were expected to police themselves, to change their own habits and make their own choices about their health. This led to a complete breakdown of communalistic thinking as some Americans retreated into their homes, while others continued to party in crowded bars.
In striking contrast, the Chinese government took a path that more closely resembles Aristotle’s views on politics and ethics. Although Aristotle does mention that each person should be able to reach excellence, he includes an important clause. In order for people to gain the “right” experience and have the “right” moral reasoning, they must come from a society that rules by these correct standards. As seen in both government and cultural response to COVID, China took drastic actions to gain a foothold against the virus. In doing this, the nation left few moral dilemmas for citizens, and certainly no room for protest. This power and trust put into the state is something not seen in the United States. It raises questions about what kind of power structure Americans really want. A state that solely lets individuals make their own decisions is hardly stable, as it will bend constantly to the will and whims of the people. It is clear that Americans do not want a state with as much control as the Communist Party in China, but it’s less clear if Americans are willing to make any sacrifices to maintain the integrity of the nation that they love.