Since news of the coronavirus began to emerge, I’ve been living with extreme vigilance. I wore masks everywhere, despite being coughed at and made fun of. “Thank you, China. God bless America,” a lady shouted at me at a supermarket near Washington in late March. But the mocking didn’t bother me. I’ve seen what it takes for 11 million people in Wuhan to get the coronavirus under control, and I knew eventually everyone would have to come to terms with it.
In June, as months of lockdown fatigue crept in, my husband wanted to celebrate his father’s 70th birthday in Marco Island, Florida. Although the thought of traveling on an airplane was stressful, I let down my guard after seeing the curve flatten and multiple states reopen.
In Marco Island, my in-laws, my husband and I were a paranoid foursome who stuck out in every crowd. When we ventured out to a popular ice cream shop, we were horrified that none of the customers waiting in line or the staff serving the scoops were wearing masks. Shortly after we flew back to D.C., my husband and I came down with the virus.
When I told my family in Wuhan, they were in disbelief. In six months, it feels like China and the United States have swapped places: Wuhan, where it all started, has reported zero cases and found just 300 asymptomatic carriers since late May, while some U.S. states are seeing thousands of new cases daily. On Sunday, Florida set a single-day record in the United States, with more than 15,000 cases.
My mother is baffled by the U.S. pandemic response: “Americans just won’t listen,” she would tell me with frustration. She is used to seeing Chinese authorities aggressively stomp out every flare-up of the virus. In mid-May, Wuhan swabbed 9 million residents in a “10-day battle” in response to a handful of new cases. Recently, a video that went viral on Chinese social media showed a woman crying hysterically after receiving her positive test result in a Beijing shopping mall. In six days, contact tracers in Beijing identified and quarantined all 292 people who had close contact with her for further testing.
As with the woman in Beijing, my first reaction to my positive test result was to feel distraught and embarrassed. China’s coronavirus response has fueled social stigma and made some covid-19 patients feel like outcasts who have endangered themselves and society. In some cities, authorities have offered rewards for self-reporting or reporting others who might be infected. Those who test positive must undergo multiple rounds of testing and remain in strict quarantine under medical monitoring for weeks.
But soon I realized that I didn’t have to worry about that. No one enforced any quarantine, though I kept myself indoors for the period that doctors said I could be contagious. Contact tracers in Washington checked on how I felt every week but did not probe into where I went or whom I met. I alerted everyone I had contact with but had the choice to keep it private. My doctor reassured me that I would not be contagious eight days after my first symptoms and that additional tests were not necessary.
In the United States, it’s mostly up to individuals to decide how they want to cope with the pandemic, but China acts more like an enormous machine, allocating resources and manpower to each challenge. It’s the difference between collectivism and individualism: China is battling one pandemic, whereas each American state, community and person is fighting their own.
Yet neither model has been entirely successful. In the United States, inconsistent and delayed policies have seen cases soar, hospitals become overwhelmed and vulnerable communities bear a disproportionate burden. In China, whistleblowers and citizen journalists have been silenced, censors have been scrubbing content of dissent online, and rigid quarantine policies have displaced migrant workers and immigrants.
There are hybrid approaches out there. South Korea, Germany and New Zealand are all examples of how collectivism and individualism work wonders together. But stuck between the Chinese and U.S. approaches, I have been asking myself: Is it better to be able to venture out without fear that my safety will be undermined, or should I feel lucky I don’t need to endure stigma and weeks of quarantine for getting the virus?
In the context of a pandemic, freedom is inevitably a double-edged sword. It isn’t just a universal right, but also a social pact that works only if everyone is on board, careful not to infringe on others’ freedom with their choices.
On the Fourth of July, 10 days after my first symptoms, I decided to go out to watch the fireworks after much internal wrangling and consulting with my doctor. In doing so, I embraced the American way, with the sobering knowledge that, as cases continue to climb, what I chose wouldn’t really make a difference.