Category Archives: How China Controlled the Virus

The United States or the Individual Will of America?

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.

Paternalism by the American Government and a Utilitarian Societal Approach

In Peter Hessler’s article, “How China Controlled the Coronavirus” in The New Yorker, Hessler addresses the main role the Chinese government played in the successful lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Hessler emphasizes the societal duty that every individual in China understood. They saw the COVID-19 virus threat as a communal threat that was extremely serious to all aspects of life. The Chinese government took the dangers of the virus so seriously to the point of having a year-old baby that tested positive being held in medical observation for more than a month. However, Hessler quickly amends such dramatic examples as distracting from the immensely useful techniques of the Chinese approach to end lockdown and return to normal life. The article raises a vital bioethical question regarding paternalism by the government and societal duty in the United States. The American government must institute a paternalistic mindset regarding lockdown procedures, while also preserving state officials’ autonomy and having a utilitarian societal approach. 

A key difference Hessler indicates between China and The United States is the education and the effort of their peoples. In China, society respects science highly and are grown up in an uber-competitive educational system. Even though it may be criticized, such qualities, with government structure, were essential to fight the pandemic successfully. On the other hand, the Americans’ response to the pandemic has been significantly more passive. To alter this passive emotional response, the American government should take a paternalistic approach. In fact, under Dworkin’s theory of justified paternalism, paternalism is warranted to preserve a wider range of freedom for the individual in question (in this case the individuals). By the American government establishing certain lockdown procedures, such as mandating mask-wearing, we are attempting to preserve not only a wider range of freedom post-coronavirus yet preserving this freedom at a quicker rate. Furthermore, state government officials may also have a say in “intensifying” such requirements depending on the threat the virus holds on the state itself. Thus, having an effective combination of state official autonomy and national government paternalism.  

In such a scenario of paternalism, societal duty must be touched upon. Realistically, it would be super difficult in America for state populations to rely on both state and national government for rules (China strictness seems impossible due to violation of human rights). However, by changes in societal thought incorporating the bioethical practice of utilitarianism, it may be possible. Our people must see that morally right actions during the pandemic, such as following guidelines and going above and beyond to keep our country safe, will benefit every American in the long-run. Also, in such political unrest, establishing trust in our government with their paternalistic view on regulations would be tremendously beneficial to the overall good of society.

Violation of Human Rights Issues – Worth Saving Lives?

In the article “How China Controlled the Coronavirus,” author Peter Hessler, an English professor working in the city of Chengdu, gives a first-hand account of his experiences of the methods put in place to help control the virus. China, more specifically Wuhan, was the known zoonotic origin of the coronavirus – spreading throughout China in early 2020. Now as 2020 comes to a close, however, China has a total death toll of 4,634 in comparison with the United States which has seen 245,514 and the UK with 49,770 (still counting). It is evident from this that China has dealt with the virus better than western powers but at what ethical costs? From the article Hessler sparks a big ethical question for me which is; to what extent are the violation of basic human ethics justified in the protection of lives?

Hessler states that the Chinese response to Coronavirus was more intense and stricter than anywhere else with the government imposing strict rules on how often members were allowed to leave their households and have any form of freedom. Examples even being given of people’s doors being taped shut from the outside preventing any inhabitants from leaving. From any perspective this would be seen as a violation of basic human rights and it raises many ethical issues – mainly of which being a right to freedom. However, we live in different times right now and are experiencing an event like never before. A true global pandemic. Looking logically at these issues with the idea that saving lives is the only true goal then it would appear China’s violations of human ethics are justified as they have achieved their goal and saved lives. But it is never that simple. From these long periods of lockdown other issues have arisen relating to mental and physical health. It is difficult to come to a set outcome on the matter as, like most things, it is purely subjective.

One particular challenge raised by the blanket response seen in China and a lesser extent in the UK is that it fails adequately to address the differing impact of the virus on different groups within society and risks unduly affecting groups whose risks may be less. For example; the needs of the younger generations with regards to mental health and education need to be adequately balanced to the risks posed by the virus to the old. This a major element spoken about in Hesslers article, the use of online platforms and their effectiveness to teach.  Arguably nationwide lockdowns do not sufficiently achieve this balance. A more targeted approach may be a more ethical positive way of looking at it.

Taking a look at the UK and its fight against Coronavirus, I believe it sits nicely in the middle of the US and China’s response with a bit of both worlds. The UK government similarly to China enforced an almost two-month lockdown in March which kept people in their homes and the spreading of the virus down. However, unlike the Chinese it was done in a more relaxed manner. Other than potential fines there were no official punishments for breaking the rules. Consider it to be advice. The ownership of health was put on the people not on the government or state. No real ethical issues were therefore violated, and it seemed a good system. The UK too sits between the US and China on total death toll, this a coincidence? – I’ll let you decide. However, with the UK about to go into another month faze of lockdown from now until early December was it harsh enough?

China’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic was a clear violation of basic human ethics but it was effective in saving lives. The United States on the other hand, maybe not so much. It is a difficult balance to achieve as there will always be backlash on either side. Is a short period of violation worth the lives saved? China now sitting proud with almost no cases whilst the US battles with 100,000s per day. It is a subjective matter difficult to answer, but this is certainly a different world than we one we lived in just 12 months ago.