Responses to coronavirus reflect differences between US, China
G. Matthew Molinsky | Thursday, March 26, 2020
Dealing with the effects of coronavirus and COVID-19 is the latest test for American democracy. This crisis will allow us to see some stark differences in the way the world’s two superpowers use their authority, and how each country handles this crisis will have serious ramifications for how each nation governs in the future.
China has been praised for its ability to contain the virus which ravaged the city of Wuhan from threatening the rest of the country, but the Chinese government had earlier opportunities to control the outbreak but chose not to act, fearing public alarm and political embarrassment. On Dec. 30, Dr. Li Wenliang warned an online group chat about the effects the virus was causing in a hospital in Wuhan. Three days later, Li was summoned by the police and compelled to sign a statement saying his warning constituted “illegal behavior.” Li later contracted the virus and died from the virus Feb. 7 at age 33.
In the early weeks of the outbreak, the Chinese government continued to tell its citizens there were no new cases of infection, no firm evidence of human transmission and no infection of medical workers despite doctors knowing that to be false. Doctors in Wuhan knew the disease was spreading among medical workers, but it took three weeks before the authorities would acknowledge the fact.
Contrast this with the information that the American public has been privy to. I can speak best to the situation in my home state of Ohio. Republican Governor Mike Dewine has been holding press conferences nearly every day for the past two weeks, but what is more commendable than talking to the public often is that he has taken the opportunity to share all the information he has with the people of Ohio. Dewine has turned much of these press conferences over to Ohio Department of Health director Dr. Amy Acton to inform the public of the science that is backing their decisions and offering advice to people on how they can help. Every day the governor has announced how many confirmed cases there are in Ohio, what counties those cases are in and the next actions the state is taking.
The American government’s response to the virus hasn’t been perfect, as shown by the Republican senator from North Carolina, Richard M. Burr, selling hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stock days after writing a Fox News opinion article about how the U.S. was “better prepared than ever before” to confront the virus. Nor has the media always done its job, as some pro-Trump reporters have dismissed the virus, as Fox Business anchor Trish Regan did when she accused Democrats of creating “mass hysteria to encourage a market sell-off” and sowing fear about the virus “to demonize and destroy the president.”
Yes, there have been people in the U.S. who tried to downplay the effects of the coronavirus in order to promote an agenda, but the protections of free speech in this country have allowed a very public dialogue to transpire between scientists, doctors, politicians, business leaders and citizens, where the known truth about the virus has come to light. In addition to the information being made known, actions can be taken. Public officials who have failed at their jobs can be removed through free, direct elections. Reporters who misinform can be discredited and rebuked.
In addition to how the governments handled the outbreaks of the crises, it’s also interesting to see the steps the governments are taking to deal with it. After taking a long time to admit its problem, China has been praised for its ability to stop the spread of the virus, but some of its practices would be impossible in the United States.
China has rolled out a new system using smartphones where individual citizens are assigned a color code — green, yellow or red — that indicates their health status. This status dictates whether citizens are allowed into subways, malls and other public spaces or if they should be quarantined. It has not been explained in detail how the system classifies people, and the software shares information, including location, to the police, sparking some to believe this system to be a template for new forms of automated social control. The system resembles another high-tech surveillance system the Chinese government has been using to keep track of Muslim minorities within the city of Kashgar.
In America, where the government has much less control over the day to day activities of individuals, officials have had to rely on people to adopt healthy practices. Rather than publicizing the whereabouts of citizens, the American government must trust people who have been infected to warn their friends, colleagues and neighbors of their exposure. Yes, the American government can restrict social gatherings, but there are no mandatory door-to-door temperature screenings going on here as there are in certain parts of China.
The greatest difference between the Chinese and American governments evident in this is respect for the individual. Where the Chinese government violates its people’s privacy while itself misinforming the public and asking its citizens to blindly trust it, the American government has tried its best to respect its individuals’ rights to privacy while granting the public access to its knowledge and actions.
It remains to be seen how effective America is at protecting itself, and the outcome of this crisis will have long-lasting effects on how we govern ourselves. Individual citizens have been given a great responsibility to keep themselves and those around them healthy. My hope is that Americans rise to that challenge in order to protect the freedom we possess today for future generations.
Matthew is the 3-Talley RA in Alumni Hall from Cincinnati. He studies in civil engineering with an itty-bitty minor in theology. Writing this column is the last in his long list of shortly lived passions. He can be reached at [email protected] and @coltonjorge on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.