BOHANON & CUROTT: Government with iron fist controls COVID—and its people

In October, Economist magazine ran a very brief story on a dozen new COVID infections in the port tourist city of Qingdao, China. Discovered on the 11th of the month, city officials quickly declared their intention to test all residents within five days. Qingdao’s population of 11 million is more than the entire Chicago metropolitan area, which includes parts of Indiana and Wisconsin.

A few days later, Chinese news sources reported that more than 4,000 testing locations had been set up in Qingdao, staffed by more than 10,000 medical personnel. By 2 p.m. on the 17th, 11 million people had been tested, and no positive cases were reported. The COVID virus was contained.

This rapid and comprehensive response to a small COVID outbreak is impressive. It is hard to imagine it being replicated anywhere in the United States. But before we go pining for our government to emulate the Chinese, we should note the very next story in the Economist: the forced detention of over 1 million ethnic Uyghurs in China.

The Uyghurs are an ethnic group of 13 million, who live primarily in the Xinjiang Province of northwestern China. They speak a Turkic language unrelated to Mandarin Chinese and are overwhelmingly Muslims.

It has been estimated that one in 10 adult Uyghurs have been sent to “re-education camps” for “crimes,” such as practicing their religious faith or making contact with relatives working outside China. Indeed, former camp prisoners report being beaten for answering yes to the question of whether they believe in God. Children of detainees are sent to state boarding schools where they are prohibited from speaking their native language. The Chinese government policy seems clearly directed at coercing the Uyghurs to adopt the language and customs of the Mandarin-speaking Han majority.

The government of China can accomplish both five-day testing and mass detention because it maintains a pervasive, universal and unchecked system of surveillance on all its residents. Facial recognition technology allows the government to keep tabs on everyone. All residents are required to install a “green code health app” on their cell phone. Failure to comply or be designated green denies one access to public buildings and public transit.

This makes testing millions of people at the drop of a hat an easy task. But such universal tracking and surveillance allows the government to imprison millions without trial or legal recourse.

We doubt that’s a price Americans are willing to pay.•

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Bohanon and Curott are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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4 thoughts on “BOHANON & CUROTT: Government with iron fist controls COVID—and its people

  1. I think a far better article would have been to look at how New Zealand and Australia have managed to tamp down their coronavirus outbreaks… without acting like the Chinese.

  2. America was founded on principles of individual liberty and freedom. This cultural and political structure challenges our elected and appointed officials to effectively govern more than most if not all other forms of government. We are also a “melting pot” of immigrants and cultures. Smaller democracies where citizens enjoy similar freedoms, and immigration practices are more restrictive, do not face nearly the challenge America’s leaders face. Yesterday, I felt the need to visit a (chain) home improvement store for a list of home maintenance items. I waited until the list grew to a point I felt I could no longer wait to make the visit. I donned my mask, entered the store, selected everything on my list, went through the self checkout scanner, and departed the store. Of course this store had a large prominently displayed sign at each entrance clearly communicating their rules for social distancing, masks, etc. While in the store I noticed more than one patron without masks. One example was a middle aged man with what appeared to be a young daughter of about 8, both without masks. He had what appeared to me a look of defiance on his face as if to say “no one is going to tell me to wear a mask”. That is one of the outcomes of the liberty and freedom we enjoy. Personally, I really am not smart enough or informed enough to really quantify the risk of not practicing social distancing or wearing a mask. So it seems prudent to error on the side of caution. As much for others as for myself. So wearing a mask and practicing social distancing seem like very small inconveniences until the pandemic is contained and behind us.
    The point is that our somewhat unique freedoms and liberty is a two-edged sword. We are free to succeed … or fail (in spite of some elected leaders that believe they can subsidize anyone and everyone “to success”).. We are free to be kind and considerate to others … or not. Ours is not a perfect structure and we are challenged more than most other countries because of our culture of individual freedoms, governmental structure, and diverse ethnic makeup. We enjoy a standard of living that eclipses nearly all other nations. What we have is so desirable, individuals and families from many other countries literally risk life and limb to reach our shores. Again, we are by no means perfect, but we are certainly among the best of the best. Bottom line … “choose” to social distance and wear a mask, whether you think it necessary or not, for the benefit and welfare of everyone around you. It will comfort many and reduce their level of fear. What a great way to express the individual liberty and freedom with which we are blessed! Seems like a good thing to do.

    1. It’s not about “fear”, it’s about “risk”. You reduce the risk for both others and yourself by wearing a mask.

      And every “freedom” has limits.

      Also left unsaid is we have a long tradition of being cranks who think we know more than the paid professionals … which is one thing when you’re comparing yourself to a professional athlete (I’d never miss that free throw!), but another thing entirely when you think you know more than an epidemiologist…

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