About a week and a half ago, I had just finished working a lunch shift at the Burton dining hall when I opened a seemingly routine Communications email. To my surprise, the 900-word message subsequently outlined several significant changes to COVID policies that would redefine the very definition of what routine living would look like for the Carleton community. By no longer requiring masks for indoor spaces and implementing 3 weeks of random surveillance testing, the campus would continue in its restoration of normalcy. Yet, rather than feeling relieved or excited, I felt an instinctual pang of uneasiness and dread. My eyes fixated on a statistic placed on the center of the Carleton COVID-19 dashboard, which described our 14-Day Positive Rate— now 0.21 percent. I found myself pondering: why doesn’t this make me feel any better?
If you had experienced the entirety of the pandemic in the United States or in another country that had not fared well in managing the spread of COVID-19, you might have found my emotions unreasonable. The truth is, my fear and concern does come from a position of privilege. For the past 13 years of my life, I lived in Shanghai, China. Although the pandemic did strike us first, our return to the normal ways of life was swift with respect to the rest of the world. Unlike many of my peers here at Carleton, I experienced the entirety of my senior year with in-person schooling, during which case numbers were low. The pandemic had virtually no impact on my daily life, and justifiably so, unlike the American brand of ignorance.
Workshops that I attended during Carleton’s International Student Orientation had regularly warned us of instances of culture shock, and I, for the most part, was luckily able to circumvent many of those moments— I was born in the U.S (to parents that had immigrated), and I adopted American cultural values by attending a school literally named Shanghai American School. Yet, even after the past three months of staying here, it is these moments of COVID-19 policy decision-making that serve as consistent reminders that my definition of abnormality, in the context of the pandemic, is one that differs wildly from those around me.
Since I experienced near-complete normalcy in one society, and now I am living in another that is eager to return to normalcy without taking the necessary measures, it may be easy for me to present the former as superior in every regard to the latter. Yet, despite the fact that I am incredibly grateful for the safety that China’s pandemic management had granted me, I still hesitate to present China’s measures as a near-perfect model to emulate. Ultimately, what allowed China to be much more effective than the United States is intrinsically tied to the concentration of power that lies within its centralized system of governance. Beyond its ability to mobilize human resources efficiently on a national level—building mass hospitals to treat COVID patients in the matter of days—what’s more unique to China’s authoritative capabilities is its vast digital contact-tracing system, which is built on mass amounts of personal data (e.g. location-sharing, travel history, health status) gathered from social media programs. Furthermore, this contact-tracing data is put to use through mandatory quarantines and testing. All of this is possible because, well, there are no privacy or freedom of movement rights.
It would be easy to praise this concentration of power when it serves one’s interests, which in this case, could be pandemic control. Yet, it would be negligent to ignore that this concentration of power would culminate ugly costs—whether it comes in the form of censorship, concentration camps, or the general lack of social autonomy. Those who can afford to turn a blind eye would often come to the conclusion that these costs are a small sacrifice to pay for the freedoms that come from being a pandemic-free country, but these costs are often borne disproportionately by vulnerable groups.
Of course, America’s brand of democracy, of course, comes at its own costs. Although much of America’s struggles with COVID-19 could be traced to the politicization of pandemic measures by prominent political figures and their party, a government that (albeit imperfectly) rules with checks and balances is one that would inevitably lack the brute institutional force to manage the COVID-19 pandemic the same way that China does, or yield the same results.
At the same time, it is still possible to do better. One page that American institutions can take from China’s playbook of pandemic management is this idea:
If it [the pandemic strategy] ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
China, for the vast majority of the pandemic, maintained the same strategy—relentlessly contact tracing positive cases, enforcing strict quarantine rules, exercising lockdowns when needed, and limiting the amount of outside persons that enter the country. American institutions are more inclined to take calculated risks rather than exercise an abundance of caution. Prior to the Delta variant’s entry to the U.S, case numbers were falling with rising vaccination numbers; then, the CDC subsequently chose to relax mask mandates. Although the general American community did not follow the CDC’s directions that the unmasking only applied to vaccinated persons, the policy change nevertheless led to a normalization of unmasking that gave rise to the Delta variant. We know the story from there.
Rather than taking calculated policy changes when we see low or lowering cases, exercising an abundance of caution, which would allow space for potential behavioral deviations from the guidelines, can be advantageous. It is for this very reason that I felt frustrated with Carleton’s decisions to unmask indoors—since what we have been doing so far has worked, is it really worth it to change when we’re only a couple weeks into the year? This is also in light of the fact that an illness has been spreading around students in the past couple of days.
While the 0.21 percent tacked on to the center of the COVID-19 dashboard may symbolize safety for comfort some, I hope we do not lose sight of its fragility, for every outbreak has to start somewhere.