How the pandemic overturned my understanding of Americans

Like many of us experiencing pandemic days, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai spent the last two years living quietly. Even now, scenes on television are rife with pandemic news in the US. Watching health workers refusing to get vaccinated or the population spurning masks in defence of their freedoms, Cheng wonders why some people are willing to be “martyrs” for the cause they believe in. Or worse, are they just foolishly courting the virus? Maybe this really shows a great gulf in attitudes between the East and West.
In this file photo taken on 6 March 2021, demonstrators throw masks into a fire during a mask burning event to protest Covid-19 restrictions, at the Idaho Statehouse in Boise, US. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images North America/AFP)
In this file photo taken on 6 March 2021, demonstrators throw masks into a fire during a mask burning event to protest Covid-19 restrictions, at the Idaho Statehouse in Boise, US. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images North America/AFP)

15 August 2021

Watching the news on NBC for the past two days, I gather that there’s been another surge in Covid-19 cases in the US. Each day, an average of over 100,000 people get infected, and 600 to 700 people die. I can’t help but sigh.

The Joe Biden administration has been urging Americans to get vaccinated but this call seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The government is also urging people to wear a mask, but some just refuse to do so, as if wearing a mask would strip them of their personalities.

The news reported that crowds gathered for demonstrations; people carried signs with slogans like “My body, my choice”. They seemed to be saying they had free will and were choosing not to get vaccinated. And they sounded indignant as well. As it is said in Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi’s poem: “Life is dear, love is dearer. Both can be given up for freedom.”

Seeing their firm resolve while chanting slogans and fighting for what they believed in, I saw a solemn and stirring picture of how Americans are defending their freedoms in spite of the coronavirus, and how they would rather die than surrender.       

When the front line spurns vaccines  

The NBC also interviewed around four to five healthcare workers — all females in their thirties who refused to get vaccinated. Why? They said because the Covid-19 vaccines are unreliable and may cause side effects or even trigger unpredictable pathological changes.

From their point of view, the experts who vouched for the vaccines could have ulterior motives in siding with the government or lobbying major pharmaceutical companies, and ultimately cheat people of their money.

A nurse said it takes at least ten years worth of medical records to know if any type of medicine is safe and reliable. Some medicine even needs to be trialled for at least 20, 30 years before their efficacy could be proven and they could be certified to be free of dire even fatal effects. Covid-19 vaccines were only researched on and developed within a year; this was a breach of medical pharmaceutical laws, they said, and not a scientific process at all. 

The reporter then pointed out that medical experts generally agree and believe that the Covid-19 vaccines are reliable and effective, and would not result in adverse effects roughly 99% of the time. With such clear scientific evidence, were the vaccines still unreliable? All of them said yes.

From their point of view, the experts who vouched for the vaccines could have ulterior motives in siding with the government or lobbying major pharmaceutical companies, and ultimately cheat people of their money. So under what circumstances would they get vaccinated? At least ten years later when all who are vaccinated no longer experience any side effects, they said. “We will never be lab rats,” they insisted. 

Demonstrators gather outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston, US, to protest Covid-19 vaccination and mask mandates. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)
Demonstrators gather outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston, US, to protest Covid-19 vaccination and mask mandates. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

The reporter followed up by asking what they would do now to cope with the pandemic if they would only agree to get vaccinated ten years later and they were all working in the healthcare industry.

They chorused, “Of course we will take preventive measures. We will wash our hands more often, wear a mask, and don a personal protective equipment suit. Apart from work requirements, we will try not to have any contact with patients as much as possible.”

There’s really nothing one can do in the face of such healthcare workers who do not trust Covid-19 vaccines. I heard that the federal government is imposing a vaccine mandate on all healthcare workers. If so, I wonder if these nurses would simply resign altogether?

At the mercy of local politicians     

While the US federal government ordered Americans to get vaccinated, this is unenforceable because no law stipulates that this must be done. Thus, the government can only impose the vaccine mandate on healthcare workers and teachers. However, some leeway is given as people who can’t get vaccinated because of health reasons do not have to do so. As long as they regularly submit their nucleic acid test reports, they can be exempted from taking the vaccine.

Should a mask be worn? The federal government says yes and encourages all to wear a mask. So what if someone doesn’t want to wear a mask? The government only says that it would be safer to wear a mask to protect oneself and others. What about those martyrs who vow to defend their personal freedom with their lives? Well, there’s nothing we can do. Just let them be! As philosopher Laozi said, “Heaven and Earth are impartial; they treat all of creation as straw dogs.”*    

Will it [wearing a mask] shake the country’s foundations, or bring American freedom and democracy to naught and land the country in an irreversible autocratic state? 

Southern US states are especially badly hit by the pandemic, with the Delta variant sweeping through Texas and Florida. A local school district ordered all teaching staff and students to wear a mask to keep children from getting infected. There is a special reason behind this — vaccine rollouts have yet to reach teenagers. Thus, they are at a high risk of infection. As a place with high human traffic and contact, mandating that everyone wears a mask in school is a safety precaution.

Alas, as soon as this requirement was rolled out, conservative Republican governors of both states harshly criticised this move as violating human rights and infringing upon individual liberties. They deemed school mask mandates to be unlawful and sought to punish those who implemented these illegal measures.

It is as if the Florida governor has gone crazy, screaming at the top of his lungs and threatening to cut the state funding of school boards that did not retract their mask mandates. How strange! Is wearing a mask such a scary thing? Will it shake the country’s foundations, or bring American freedom and democracy to naught and land the country in an irreversible autocratic state? 

A student wears a mask as he enters the St. Lawrence Catholic School on the first day of school after summer vacation in Miami, Florida, US, on 18 August 2021. (Chandan Khanna/AFP)
A student wears a mask as he enters the St. Lawrence Catholic School on the first day of school after summer vacation in Miami, Florida, US, on 18 August 2021. (Chandan Khanna/AFP)

The governor of Arkansas is also a conservative Republican. He initially banned mask mandates and disallowed the people to wear masks. As the pandemic wreaked havoc over the past couple of days and the god of death reaped a harvest with his giant sickle, the governor suddenly appeared on TV saying that it was an “error” to ban mask mandates and he now hopes that everyone will wear a mask.

Ah, at least he admitted his mistake and rectified it. Will the governor of Florida admit his mistake? How unfortunate it is to see that politicians are treating people like a joke and manipulating them, all for the sake of votes!

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The coronavirus is like a tiger that ate a person — not only did it swallow that person, it nurtured many ghosts that continue infecting other people. And this is why the coronavirus is so powerful.

14 September 2021

It has been quite unexpected how stubborn this coronavirus has been. Initially, we thought that the pandemic would be controlled and with two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, efficacy rates would increase to 90% or more. But who would have thought that the coronavirus can morph itself like Sun Wukong (Monkey King) in Journey to the West? Distinguished by the Greek alphabet, variants of Covid-19 like Alpha and Delta have already made their appearance, and a Mu variant has recently emerged. Will the coronavirus really transform 72 times like the Monkey King and utterly overwhelm the medical field?

As the saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them. But there is a more profound way of saying this in Chinese, and that is, 为虎作伥 (wei hu zuo chang, literally becoming a tiger’s ghost after being eaten by it), describing how those who are eaten by a tiger become its accomplices. The coronavirus is like a tiger that ate a person — not only did it swallow that person, it nurtured many ghosts that continue infecting other people. And this is why the coronavirus is so powerful. 

Hopes of herd immunity dissipated

Initially, I listened to the analysis of medical experts and thought that herd immunity would occur if 70% to 80% of the population were vaccinated, and life would go back to normal after that.

Alas, greater obstacles came after certain results were achieved — a fully vaccinated person can still be infected, just that his symptoms would not be too serious and it would not result in death since he has antibodies now. But what’s unexpected is that one would still become an accomplice of the tiger as a carrier of the virus and infect others as a result. The herd immunity theory that experts had earlier boasted about has been shot down in flames.

Israeli children undergo Covid-19 antibody testing in the coastal city of Netanya, Israel, on 22 August 2021, before the start of the new school year. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Israeli children undergo Covid-19 antibody testing in the coastal city of Netanya, Israel, on 22 August 2021, before the start of the new school year. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Currently, the UK and Israel are leading in the Covid-19 vaccination race with nearly 80% of its population vaccinated. On top of that, a significant number of people were once infected, which means that over 90% of its population has antibodies. Based on theory, the pandemic should come under control, the economy should recover, society should prosper, and people should be living in peace and contentment.

But the problem is, the coronavirus mutates and refuses to be subdued. Instead, it worsened and vaccine breakthrough infections surged. After the UK and Israel resumed social activities and lifted mask mandates following their high vaccination rates, new daily Covid-19 cases rose sharply instead. 

I have always been befuddled by the way some Americans are so indifferent about infection and death.

Individual rights at what cost?

The US’s pandemic situation is even more shocking — over the past week, an average of 150,000 new cases were reported each day, along with roughly 1,500 deaths. The US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explained that the main reason for this is because some people did not follow medical guidelines and refused to get vaccinated, while other state governments were determined to challenge the federal government’s anti-epidemic measures.

I have always been befuddled by the way some Americans are so indifferent about infection and death. In the name of a belief they are unclear of, they firmly chant “My body, my choice”, and refuse to wear a mask, as if wearing a mask is such a serious sin that they would rather die than give in.

“Give me liberty, or give me death!” said American statesman Patrick Henry. While this is indeed noble, such repudiation of basic health facts and taking extreme measures to defend human rights and being utterly unafraid of death has completely overturned my understanding of Americans.       

Demonstrators chant "USA" as they gather outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston, US, to protest Covid-19 vaccination and mask mandates. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)
Demonstrators chant "USA" as they gather outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston, US, to protest Covid-19 vaccination and mask mandates. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

Some people think that the psychological reason behind these people’s refusal to get vaccinated or wear a mask is because they want to assert their individual autonomy — a core value of America’s freedom and democracy that must not be violated.

Is the matter so serious and are their motives so noble? Does vaccination mean that one has violated God’s law of nature and the basic principles of faith, and become a lost sheep that has betrayed God? Does wearing a mask mean that one has lost his/her individuality and personality, and betrayed the spirit of human rights granted to him/her by the constitution, making them unworthy to be called American? 

Maybe Asians are too pragmatic and cherish their time on this earth, with many even believing that to hang on to life no matter what is still better than dying a good death.

Mainstream US media speak of hidden agendas, claiming that the Republicans are practising political manipulation and inciting conservative Republican supporters in the southern and midwestern regions to hold anti-establishment and anti-medical consensus views in an attempt to damage the Democratic Party’s reputation amid a power struggle.

Over 40 million Covid-19 cases and over 700,000 deaths have been reported in the US, which means that only about 12.5% of its population of 330 million have been infected and 0.2% of its population have died. That is to say, if people living in the countryside refuse to look at the wider picture, they would only see that the chances that their friends and relatives would die from the coronavirus seem negligible. There are generally just hundreds of households in the small towns around the US’s southern and midwestern regions. Since chances of death from the disease are slim where they are, they do not feel that the god of death is coming their way at all.

Maybe Asians are too pragmatic and cherish their time on this earth, with many even believing that to hang on to life no matter what is still better than dying a good death. At the same time, they have also adopted scientific mindsets and possess a relatively empirical attitude towards the objective world. They feel that the pandemic is a threat to their lives and are always thinking about how they can protect their precious bodies.

It is still understandable that some people refuse to take the Covid-19 vaccine because of their unique body conditions or medical conditions. But is demonstrating on the streets in order not to wear a mask really done for the sake of defending inalienable human rights?

*Translated by J M McDonald at Tao-In-You.com.

Related: Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: The best antidote for surviving the pandemic | Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: The power of the individual during a pandemic | Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: Life and death are predestined, and wealth and poverty are heaven’s arrangement | Pandemic diary (Chapter 4): The president who spread a political virus | Pandemic diary (Chapter 5): The huge difference between Hong Kong and American societies | Pandemic diary (Chapter 6): When democracy is despotic