Shanghai’s Orwellian nightmare is a reminder of the inhumanity of absolutist approaches to disease control
According to official reports, over 25 million Shanghai residents were placed under strict lockdown from March 27, due to rising cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. And when they say “lockdown,” they don’t just mean, “essential travel only.” They mean, do not leave your apartment even to purchase food. Shanghai residents must wait inside their apartments for food supplies to be delivered to them. According to a BBC report, Shanghai authorities have admitted that there have been problems with the food supply chain, corroborating complaints of food shortages made by residents.
The city has set up testing sites to implement mandatory mass testing, shuttling off Covid-positive residents to hospitals and makeshift quarantine facilities. Loudspeakers blare out, “Get tested now.” Isolating at home is not an option.
One particularly disturbing aspect of the Shanghai lockdown is the separation of parents from children who test positive and are sent off to quarantine facilities. It must be pretty heart-wrenching to see one’s child carted away to a quarantine facility, completely deprived of the support of family and loved ones.
One of the scenes that seems to encapsulate the hopeless plight of Shanghai residents, trapped in their apartments by their own government, is the sound of residents screaming in protest from their windows. This scene was captured on social media, and picked up by many mainstream media, such as The Guardian, as well:
Shanghai authorities announced on Monday, April 11, that they would implement a “limited easing” of restrictions. But this comes two full weeks into one of the strictest and most far-reaching lockdowns since the pandemic began. Who knows how many people will by now have been deprived of access to essential medical services, or have gone hungry due to broken supply chains, or have been sunk in depression due to prolonged isolation from friends and loved ones?
Most of the world has by now come to accept that we must live with Covid-19 for the foreseeable future, and that all hopes of a “zero Covid” future were a naive pipe-dream that will never come to pass. Yet China seems to cling to the fantasy of a zero-Covid world, refusing to accept that such a fantasy has lost every shred of credibility in this endemic phase of the virus.
The severe two-week lockdown in Shanghai has not been successful at containing the virus. Even if it were successful, this success would not be sustainable, since you cannot just keep locking down a large population every time a highly transmissible virus pops its head above the parapet.
To indulge a fantasy privately is one thing; to allow public officials to inflict that fantasy, come hell or high water, on a population of 25 million citizens is quite another.
But as we survey Shanghai from Western nations that have, at least for a while, recovered most of the liberties we were stripped of in the name of public health, we cannot afford to be complacent. For the Orwellian nightmare that we see unfolding before our eyes in Shanghai is just the logical consequence of the very same sort of Covid containment absolutism that ruled the roost across much of the West during a large part of the pandemic.
And this cruel, inhumane, and absolutist approach to disease control, though it has been significantly tempered in most Western nations in the latter months of the pandemic, has only been explicitly disavowed by a fraction of Western governments. So the new public health absolutism unleashed in 2020 has certainly not been laid to rest in the West.
Furthermore, the notion of a WHO-led pandemic “treaty,” now being publicly mooted by the WHO, raises the spectre of an even more tightly coordinated international pandemic response, in a world in which many political and scientific elites, with a limited appreciation for the principles of liberal constitutionalism and individualised medicine, have yet to publicly distance themselves in a principled way from the recklessness and inhumanity of lockdowns and medical coercion.
The Covid containment absolutist fancies himself as a humanitarian, who just wants to save lives, but in reality, embraces a bizarrely selective form of humanitarianism, fixing his attention almost exclusively on lives endangered by Covid infections. Indeed, he is so single-mindedly preoccupied with reducing infections that virtually every other dimension of public health and societal well-being seems to disappear from view.
The Covid containment absolutist is like a grand Chess Master, who has crafted a Master Plan for his army of chess pieces to faithfully follow. If a chess piece protests or resists, it must be put back in its place. At least, in theory.
The trouble is, human beings are much more than chess pieces. They are living, breathing persons with hopes, fears, desires, aspirations, loves, and aversions. They are equipped by nature to be masters of their own destinies, not just pawns on a chessboard.
To shove people around, ship them off to quarantine camps, mandate them to test repeatedly even when they are in perfect health, punish them for not vaccinating, order them to stay at home, confine them within a two-kilometre radius of their homes, or restrict the number of visitors they may receive in the privacy of their own home, is essentially to treat them as cattle, or as pawns on a chessboard, not as autonomous individuals with valid life plans and choices of their own.
To treat people as mere disease vectors, or utility functions in a Covid Containment Plan, is to trample on their dignity and to make their liberties contingent on the questionable musings of an “expert class,” a class that has, for the most part, exhibited a blinkered and impoverished social imagination, and proved itself hopelessly inept at managing a complex public health problem. The disproportionate faith this expert class has placed in containment measures like universal masking, vaccine passports, and lockdowns, has proved delusional.
Shanghai may appear to us now as a distant Orwellian nightmare. But in reality, it is just a slightly accentuated version of the Orwellian nightmare Western governments needlessly inflicted on their own citizens in 2020 and 2021, in the face of a virus that poses no serious threat to young and healthy people and has an estimated Infection Fatality Rate in the range of 0.2-0.3%.
Shanghai’s current lockdown shares with its Western counterparts an inhumane and reckless approach to disease control characterised by dehumanising attitudes toward citizens, a mono-dimensional vision of public health and well-being, and a manifest contempt for human rights. Sadly, this infelicitous approach took root among many leaders of the international public health establishment soon after it was first put on display in Wuhan back in January 2020.
If we are shocked by the way Chinese authorities imprison their citizens in their homes and ship infected citizens off to makeshift isolation camps, then we should probably take a long, hard look in the mirror.
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