People are surrounded by a sea of white flags planted in memory of coronavirus victims in an art installation titled “In America how could this happen...” in Washington on December 1. Photo: AFP
by Frank S. Hong
by Frank S. Hong

Coronavirus US: a society that puts the individual before public health lacks common sense

  • In China, the sense of community is strong, with people working collectively to fight an indiscriminate threat. But, in America, religious and personal freedoms loom large
  • A society that is losing 3,000 lives a day to Covid-19 lacks the intelligence grounded in the reality of life

Serious news organisations in the United States have been avoiding the obvious question: is there anything that America can learn from China – as far as saving lives is concerned?

The consensus behind this dodging is as subtle as it is deep-seated. One is an authoritarian nation, while the other is a leader of the free world. There is no moral equivalency, as the saying goes. Sporadic reporting on China’s experience in battling Covid-19 is cast as exotic tales from a remote land.

When Americans occasionally look for comparison in Asia, they choose South Korea and Taiwan as they are democracies. To borrow a phrase from US Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who knew effective public health measures would so perfectly align with democracy?
I was at Columbia University doing research on comparative governance when New York City became the epicentre of the pandemic in the US during the first wave in the spring. Last month, when several local infection cases surfaced in Pudong, Shanghai for the first time since the initial outbreak, it also hit home as I am a resident in one of the neighbourhoods of concern.

But, at no time did I get even slightly concerned that the virus might spread out of control. If I had any concern over the Shanghai government’s handling of the cases, it was that there would be overzealous citywide mass testing, which rightfully did not happen, or quarantine requirements for travellers from Shanghai to other parts of China.


The places that successfully contained Covid-19 and why others are not following their lead

The places that successfully contained Covid-19 and why others are not following their lead

Yet, at a time when Pudong was a hotspot, I travelled four hours west of Shanghai by high-speed train. Except for using a QR code on my phone to alert the local authorities upon arrival and disclosing my place of residence to the hotel staff, my trip went on as usual.

This largely uninterrupted life, save for a few thousand residents under lockdown, did not happen by default. It was a result of rigorous contact tracing, timely communication, effective coordination and, most of all, cool-headed deliberation by numerous governmental agencies.

What about those residents who were locked down for 14 days because of one or two neighbours who tested positive? I cannot speak for them. But I did go through 14-day mandatory quarantine myself on returning from New York in late May.

At the end of the quarantine, passengers from my flight expressed their heartfelt thanks to the hotel staff and local officials for their hard work. Some wrote poems, others drew cartoons of the staff, in personal protective gear, bringing meals to us.

How ‘Covid first’ China is trumping ‘America first’

This is how a community works collectively to fight an indiscriminate threat to the community. But, in America, individual rights loom large. As a US Supreme Court majority noted in a recent ruling that blocked pandemic restrictions on religious gatherings: “The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.”

But why is observing an attendance limit in a house of worship during the pandemic necessarily a loss of freedom? Before reaching for the US Constitution, this is first and foremost a question of intelligence.

The First Amendment bars the State from prohibiting the free exercise of religion. “Free exercise” is a loaded concept predicated on autonomous individuals being capable of exercising choices free from external influence.

John Dewey doubted the viability of such an individual’s free thinking. “Intelligence becomes ours in the degree in which we use it and accept responsibility for consequences,” he wrote.

The irony of the religious gatherings ruling is that powerful religious organisations are stepping up to demand the constitutionally protected individual right to worship in a group exactly when such gatherings threaten the community at large.

And the constitutional battle for group worship that has been fought so relentlessly during the pandemic is ultimately for salvation, a purely individual matter.

The false dichotomy of Chinese autocracy and American democracy

What is lost between organised religion and individual redemption is the community in this life. In China, neither plays a role, so the community looms large.

Chinese society had settled the debate over this life and the next life by the 11th century, after struggling with the overwhelming influence of Buddhism for centuries. In America, historical contingency is no less a factor in making freedom of religion, instead of freedom from religion, a constitutional right.


Wuhan pool party shows China's ‘strategic victory’ over Covid-19, Beijing says

Wuhan pool party shows China's ‘strategic victory’ over Covid-19, Beijing says

“The stuff of belief and proposition is not originated by us. It comes to us from others, by education, tradition and the suggestion of the environment. Our intelligence is bound up … with the community life of which we are a part.” Dewey’s words ring no less true today.

The American community that loses 3,000 lives a day is not only sick but, more importantly, lacking in intelligence, the kind of intelligence that is grounded in the reality of this life.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett has proved to be a godsend to those demanding the freedom to resist science in general and Covid-19-related restrictions in particular.

She demonstrated her intelligence during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, by equivocating on climate change and entirely failing to name the fifth freedom protected by the First Amendment: the right to petition government for redress of grievances.

Not only is she a pitch-perfect product of an upbringing heavily influenced by one organised religion, Barrett also has the capacity to single-handedly increase America’s intelligence deficit with China in the decades to come. Her first Covid-19-related ruling as a Supreme Court justice, delivered like a gift on the eve of Thanksgiving, is just the beginning.

Frank S. Hong is a corporate lawyer and the founder of the Cook Ding Institute, an independent think tank based in Shanghai.