When my family returned to the United States after six weeks of quarantine in Shanghai, our friends and relatives responded with congratulations and relief that we were finally safe. Less than a week since arriving back home, however, we don’t quite share our loved ones’ sentiments. We felt safer in Shanghai as conditions improved than we do in the U.S.
Everybody must accept their own responsibility, vulnerability and complicity — sacrificing “rights” for the collective good — or many of us will die.
Our anxiety was triggered as soon as we stepped on American soil. In China, airport medical checks happened before we were allowed into areas with other passengers. At Chicago O’Hare International Airport, we waited in line with hundreds of other passengers at border security before finally being identified as having just returned from China. At that point, we were escorted to the side by an apologetic young man in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention jacket who checked our temperatures and gave us a packet informing us that, as individuals traveling from China, the CDC requested we isolate ourselves as much as possible for 14 days. Airport staff never even asked where we were going.
I’ve now lived through a coronavirus quarantine in the two countries, and the differences are stark well beyond their airports. In China, the obligation to isolate felt shared and the public changed their habits almost immediately. Sterilization, cleanliness and social distancing were prioritized by everyone at all times. Rightly or wrongly, the Chinese state’s heavy-handed approach seemed to work.
In contrast, individual liberty is the engine that drives American exceptionalism. There are certainly valid questions about how much of it to sacrifice in the name of the public good, but our laissez-faire attitude, prioritization of personal freedom and utter lack of government leadership have left Americans confused and exposed.
Particularly troubling has been the extent to which it has felt like high-risk residents such as ourselves have had to shoulder the burden for stopping the spread of the disease by being the only ones to go into isolation. There are lessons to be learned from the Chinese people if not its leadership, including that everybody must accept their own responsibility, vulnerability and complicity — sacrificing “rights” for the collective good — or many of us will die.
Like everyone else in China, my wife, young son, baby daughter and I were swept up in the COVID-19 crisis at the end of January. Seemingly overnight, the entire country went on lockdown. In Shanghai, to which we’d moved in August to give our son the chance to live a Chinese life, we stayed indoors, wore masks whenever we had to shop or get some exercise, watched as every restaurant, park, museum and shop other than grocery stores was closed and prepared for an open-ended quarantine.
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Everyone diligently maintained the mandated meter’s distance from one another. Professional sporting leagues were canceled almost immediately. Schools never reopened after the winter break. Across the city, special fever clinics were set up so that regular hospitals could keep other ill people protected.
Because everyone was isolated due to a complex mix of state mandates, housing authority restrictions, peer pressure and a deep sense of personal responsibility, flaunting those expectations by going out in public without masks or gathering in crowds was noticeable, frowned upon and even rebuked. With everybody following suit, it never felt like a choice as it does in the U.S. Here, if we didn’t decide to isolate ourselves, who would know?
Sometimes in China things became overzealous. There was deep mistrust and fear, understandably. Anyone without a mask was a risk. Stories abounded of communities taking it upon themselves to barricade the entrances to their towns. Sometimes with official approval, neighbors ratted out neighbors suspected of hiding symptoms.
Scores of volunteers also swept the country armed with thermometers. Collective civic responsibility over individual safety became a point of pride, one emphasized in government propaganda celebrating health care workers and urging Wuhan residents to remain at home “for the good of the country.” The virus had given the average person an opportunity to demonstrate their heroism, even if it killed them.
There was never one set of guidelines for people who were potential infection risks and another for innocent bystanders. We were all at risk; we were all potential threats.
Because everybody was adhering to it, quarantine in Shanghai soon settled into a predictable pattern. Residents relied heavily on online shopping, with drivers never entering apartments or interacting with customers. We ordered online; drivers delivered to impromptu drop-off zones; we collected our purchases once they’d left.
Some trips were still necessary, so every building required a temperature reading by security guards before entry. On my last excursion to a big supermarket before we left, I had my temperature taken four times between my apartment door and the produce section. Government offices and hospitals required travel history questionnaires to prevent anyone who’d been near the virus outbreak epicenter of Wuhan from entering. Some even required patrons to scan a barcode that revealed where their cellphone had been over the last two weeks to instantly fact-check people’s answers.
I am loathe to credit this response to some kind of ingrained “collectivism” that has developed during decades of Communist Party rule, but the communal buy-in to the need for universal behavior change was astonishing. Certainly the reality of authoritarian control, the subservience of the individual to the state or the collective, and the pressure to conform made widespread habit change both more feasible and acceptable, even if due to fear of retribution. But there was a palpable “all for one and one for all” ethos.
In keeping with that spirit, in each of these moves to quell the spread of infection, it felt as if everybody was treated the same. There was never one set of guidelines for people who were potential infection risks and another for innocent bystanders. We were all at risk; we were all potential threats. Everyone was equally responsible for avoiding infecting others.
Indeed, in China I was indistinguishable from the millions of other responsible Shanghai habitants. In the U.S., by contrast, I feel marked as a recent resident of China and potential carrier. I’m healthy, but I’m a threat. There’s a clear distinction between the contagious and the “innocent” who shouldn’t have to change their behavior for anyone because individual liberty is a greater value than collective deference.
People who appear Chinese are particularly being targeted with harassment and blamed in the U.S., reinforcing the divide between threat and innocent. In our already polarized country, we don’t need another social division. And every day the disease is politicized in this way is a day when the virus’s utter disregard for passports and party affiliation gives it the upper hand.
Habit change is also harder in the U.S., where individualism and optimism reign and society seems segregated into the COVID-19 haves and have-nots. With so little federal guidance, there is a trickle-down economy of responsibility and it is up to the potentially diseased to keep nondiseased people safe, while any government or collective provisions seem wholly inadequate.
Following our CDC packet, we monitor our symptoms and take our temperatures twice a day, although nobody has ever followed up. We avoid grocery stores, since they’re public places, even though our online grocery shopping was a fiasco that took hours of blame-passing as our order was never fulfilled, instilling little confidence that a city in isolation can get essentials.
Going out in public without masks or gathering in crowds was noticeable, frowned upon and even rebuked. With everybody following suit, it never felt like a choice as it does in the U.S.
We’ve also been told not to bother with masks, and temperature-taking is an afterthought (as at O’Hare). Maybe masks don’t work, maybe temperature-reading is inefficient. But if it is an elaborate kind of security theater, in China it felt like everyone was in the play. Masks communicated an awareness of responsibility, vulnerability and complicity, a shared deference to disease.
We left Shanghai as the city was showing signs of flickering optimism. New cases were rare. Life was returning to normal, and the millions of quarantined residents were emerging tentatively from the shadows.
We entered the U.S. as a country in panic. Guidelines shift from day to day and agency to agency. Coronavirus tests and adequate health facilities are in short supply. It’s clear that the government can’t stop the spread.
We can’t simply hope high-risk people manage to avoid infecting others. It is up to all of us and each of us. We are all threats and we are all innocents.