One of the more interesting warnings about COVID-19 that I have heard from friends and family back home is this: don’t travel far—you never know when the government will shut down public transport and you’ll be stuck there.
My intuition was to brush them off.
“The Americans aren’t like us,” I said. “They’d rather die than have the government tell them where they can and cannot go.”
I might have spoken too soon. President Clayton Rose’s email on March 11 suspended campus access for the remainder of the semester and shattered plans for spring break—and with it our hopes and dreams for the rest of the second semester. As my peers were scattered all across the U.S. and abroad after hurried departures and many insufficient goodbyes, I was lodged in Cambridge, Mass., visiting friends. Suddenly, I had one too few suitcases packed and a roundtrip ticket to California to cancel.
The announcement set off a current of shock, anger and confusion; students spearheaded a petition asking the College to reconsider its eviction notice for the few with limited or no means to go home. After much debate, a compromise was reached at the end of the day. Students whom the College determined had extenuating circumstances, like international students, were granted housing at Brunswick Apartments—myself included.
Living on campus has allowed me to observe cultural and political nuances during the pandemic. Despite being chided by the international community, China enforced its draconian measures to quiet down the pandemic—and it succeeded, for now. Admittedly, whether the solution is temporary remains to be seen, but its unparalleled commitment to mobilize every ounce of the public resource is in itself an astonishing feat. To this day, China has only 83,000 cases (compared to America’s 214,000) with community transmission ceased and the vast majority of cases already recovered. For a country with a sky-high population density hit head on by the pandemic, these results indicate a web of technological mass surveillance years in the making and a political ideology of pragmatism-trumps-all.
To paint a picture of what it’s like, government officials in Wuhan published the movement details of confirmed patients after the city was quarantined, in an effort to trace the virus. Residents could go online to see if the bus or shared taxi they rode was with someone who was later diagnosed with COVID-19. After the infections slowed and so-called “imported cases” from overseas surfaced, the government shifted gears and addressed the challenge by barring the entry of foreigners while restricting, tagging and monitoring returns of Chinese citizens from overseas.
The system has evolved from a provisional strategy with significant practical difficulties to a state-mandated quarantine-upon-arrival policy for every citizen. Officials in full hazmat suits inspect every flight that lands on Chinese soil before disembarkment and collect travel histories from each passenger who are given color-coded tags that correspond to their likelihood of being infected before being allowed into the airport for a mandatory COVID-19 nucleic acid test. This inspection is followed by a mandatory 14-day quarantine at home or in a designated hotel. Most citizens are moved to a hotel for quarantine, where fears of cross-contamination are so high that all air conditioners are disabled. In the few cases that qualify for at-home quarantine, the district officials liaise with the local community officials to place a seal on the citizen’s apartment door. The breach of this seal could result in an offence, meaning that you and the people in close contact with you are effectively placed under extrajudicially-sanctioned detention for half a month. The price paid for efficiency in combating demons requires cross-sector coordination from every corner of the society. The tyranny has metamorphosed into a collective fear so strong that it threatens anyone who steps outside the boundaries of social distancing and home quarantine.
These seemingly arbitrary measures deserve to be called out for what they are: rushed, capricious, flagrantly upending basic rights and openly invading privacy. Several would almost certainly be struck down in the U.S. for unconstitutionality. But to understand China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic starts with the nation’s tradition of trust in authority. Unlike that of the United States, Chinese culture values uniformity above individualism, and, as Lulu Wang so masterfully demonstrates in “The Farewell,” private life has always been second to the collective, and the individual has always given way for the “greater good.”
The politics of “greater good” sparked many monumental events that shaped Chinese history: from Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary image of a republic to Mao’s communist state; from a transgressively egalitarian regime in the 1950s to the booming, bigoted capitalism in the 1970s; from family values of homophobia to a propaganda-backed fever rush of nationalism. Personally, I never liked the “greater good.” It diminishes individuality and creates catastrophic precedents giving powerful governments an unchecked “carte blanche.”
Around the world, the conversation now morphs into a wider, lucid discussion of the best way to move forward amid a public health crisis while balancing the basic human right of mobility with the demands of collective welfare. As the situation escalates beyond everyone’s expectations, America scrambles to increase testing and keep the public health system afloat. Many of its measures are already unprecedented, just like the College’s, and many more stringent ones loom. During times of uncertainty, and considering the built-in trust on its people and promises of great mobility, freedom and privacy, this conversation is more pertinent than ever in America—as indelible as this all is, this pandemic will certainly not be the last.
As I contemplated my options of staying or leaving, for the longest time I couldn’t figure out how the Chinese government would enforce these extreme measures. “What if I wanted to leave?” I asked. “Then what?”
Turns out it wasn’t all that hard to install a security camera in front of your door. “Do you really think they wouldn’t know, just because you choose not to tell them?” a friend said. “Please.”