Our laissez-faire attitude, prioritization of personal freedom and utter lack of government leadership have left Americans confused and exposed.
By Tony Perman, associate professor of music at Grinnell College
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.