No matter what our stand is on the pandemic, we will eventually have to admit that the Covid-19 scourge of the 21st century will have no less impact on humankind than the two world wars of the 20th century.
When the epidemic first broke out in 2020 and Wuhan was locked down, I was in the midst of holding a campus forum open to teachers, students and the wider community. The college’s political science and biology professors as well as the dean of International Education took part. In March 2020, the college suspended in-person classes and the second forum that I had lined up was cancelled.
After that, I witnessed and experienced a public opinion war over wearing masks. Then the murder of George Floyd triggered mass demonstrations across the US. There was a surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans, and then the pandemic slowly ebbed. But the highly transmissible Delta variant brought on another wave of Covid-19 and infection rates soared to new highs. After that, there was a new debate — whether to adopt the zero-Covid strategy or live with the virus.
The main issue is whether the government has the right to restrict personal habits to safeguard social well-being in a public health crisis.
Reflecting on individual rights, community and government
The pandemic has brought to the fore inherent tensions in the role of government in American society. The main issue is whether the government has the right to restrict personal habits to safeguard social well-being in a public health crisis. Generally speaking, Americans who are more educated and rational are the ones who tend to obey mask mandates. Those who go against the rules usually have lower levels of education and understand individual freedom in an absolute and extreme way.
Another point to note is that a considerable proportion of Americans are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Members of this demographic are particularly wary of the expansion of government power. They believe that any rise in public authority leads to terrifying socialism. America’s respect for diversity allowed this group of people to mount online or street protests against executive orders mandating the wearing of masks in public places. Furthermore, due to the entrenched principle of individual freedom in American history and differing views on the level of freedom and regulation in society, such disputes can hardly be solved.
Even within the same state in the US, Covid-19 measures have varied greatly. For instance, an anti-epidemic work group was formed at my college. So far, it has organised at least four free nucleic acid tests for all employees. It also worked with the local medical centre to offer vaccinations for those willing to be inoculated at the earliest time possible. In the US, vaccinations are free. Apart from sending out regular anti-epidemic notices, the college has also mandated the wearing of masks indoors and given warnings to students who went against social distancing rules.
Conversely, at another university in the same region, indoor mask mandates were not announced and neither did the school encourage its staff to get vaccinated. As a result, Chinese professors on campus felt that they were “the minority of the minority” by insisting on wearing masks. This goes to show that centralisation and standardisation are that much harder to implement given the US’s longstanding diverse political and social ecology and tradition of autonomy.
During a pandemic, tensions between the individual and society became more apparent. With its institutions and political culture supporting freedom, autonomy and decentralisation, it is difficult for the US government to strictly regulate the behaviour of each region, institution and individual. However, it would be unfair to say that the US adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards the pandemic and completely failed in its pandemic containment efforts. The pandemic greatly increased the proportion of Americans who worked from home, learned remotely and met online. Working from home in turn increased the demand for property, which led to rising property prices.
... a moderate degree of freedom of movement and a lack of compulsory regulations ensured that people’s daily lives went on without being drastically affected.
Two-pronged, hybrid approach
During the 2020-2021 academic year, my child’s school offered a two-pronged approach to learning: parents who were willing to let their children attend in-person classes could continue to do so, while parents who did not want this could opt for online lessons for their children. The school district used a curriculum system developed by an online education company that allowed parents to monitor their children’s learning and examinations when studying at home. Students’ test scores would be included in their transcript but they would need to return to school to take the annual statewide examination. I chose the latter route and my child attended virtual lessons at home for a year. This two-pronged approach ensured that students and parents could exercise their freedom of choice.
Mask mandates and a ban on dining in have been implemented in supermarkets and restaurants in the US. Many chain restaurants have also designated special parking lots for those who ordered online to drive by and pick up their food. Masked employees bring their orders right up to their cars. Similar measures are also in place at large supermarkets. After an online order has been made, shoppers can park at a designated parking lot and notify masked supermarket staff who would then bring the products to the car. Temperature screening is also in place for people entering hospitals and gyms. These measures are unprecedented responses and changes made due to the pandemic.
American’s innate need for freedom and autonomy contributed to the pandemic spinning out of control. However, a moderate degree of freedom of movement and a lack of compulsory regulations also ensured that people’s daily lives went on without being drastically affected. Over the past year, my family and I have been living in such an environment, and it is certainly getting increasingly difficult to make a clear-cut judgement on whether a certain anti-epidemic model is good or bad.
After all, the pandemic has been going on for nearly two years and it is unimaginable not to have gone out or communicated with people entirely. Also, I headed straight to the A&E department in 2020 when I had a fever one night. I took a nucleic acid test and it came back negative. The hospital later fully refunded what I had paid. Perhaps, we can only truly evaluate and judge how America has fared in the pandemic later in the future.
At present, the only one-size-fits-all measure that the US government can adopt and that would not generate any public criticism and interference from various political and religious groups is to give money.
At present, the only one-size-fits-all measure that the US government can adopt and that would not generate any public criticism and interference from various political and religious groups is to give money. This seems to highlight the dominance of American capitalism — that is, regardless of the countless rounds of debate over masks, the virus and vaccines, distributing American dollars is the only thing that is unanimously supported and that is the easiest to execute in a simple and direct manner. Indeed, even extreme liberals most wary of “big government” would accept the government’s money without asking any questions.
Meeting basic needs all that matters
After former US President Donald Trump disbursed Covid-19 relief funds, the Joe Biden administration also gave out cash grants to families on two occasions and allowed child tax credit payments to be collected in advance on a monthly basis. In addition, although we are not a low-income family, we received for the first time this year the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card that the US government has instituted to help those in need as my child is of eligible age. This card has a value of over US$800 and can be used to buy food from the supermarket or for cash withdrawals.
This would be of great help to parents who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. If used at typical American supermarkets, this card has great value and can last several grocery outings. When school reopened in autumn 2021, public elementary and middle schools in the state of Pennsylvania provided free breakfast and lunch, further easing the financial pressure on some families.
As long as these needs are met, the ordinary American is not at all concerned about how China and other countries are fighting the pandemic and if their anti-epidemic measures are more effective or not.
Although the US’s money-printing spree has pushed up global prices, people hardly feel the pressure of inflation as they go about their daily lives in the US. For the average family, the purchase of food and daily necessities — not consumer durables — is what is truly non-negotiable. But the prices of these basic necessities have not gone up too much and ordinary people like me can easily buy affordable food and necessities and get on with life. As long as these needs are met, the ordinary American is not at all concerned about how China and other countries are fighting the pandemic and if their anti-epidemic measures are more effective or not.
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