Column: When a pandemic strikes, which is better, zero-tolerance or herd immunity?

As we all know, COVID has affected a lot of people’s lives. Each country has its own way of dealing with outbreaks. China and the USA are two examples of how countries have dealt with the pandemic very differently and how people have been affected by these policies. Some countries have a zero-tolerance system, which…
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June 14, 2023

As we all know, COVID has affected a lot of people’s lives. Each country has its own way of dealing with outbreaks. China and the USA are two examples of how countries have dealt with the pandemic very differently and how people have been affected by these policies.

Some countries have a zero-tolerance system, which means that no single case of the disease is allowed to exist.  To this end, China has made many efforts, such as encouraging universal vaccination, closely tracking contacts of the virus, or closing the country to foreigners. 

Others have a coexistence approach, which means that the virus is allowed to continue to spread until it becomes like the flu and everyone is immune, or there is no significant outbreak. Until now, many states in the United States have not had specific policies of mandating masks or vaccines regarding outbreaks. Much of the U.S. has taken a coexistence approach to the pandemic. 

Each country’s approach has advantages. Of course, there will be disadvantages as well. 

I was fortunate enough to go back to China in the summer of 2020 when it was thought that the epidemic seemed to have been under control there.  Indeed, after the lockdowns in the United States, I felt like I was living a normal life in China like before the pandemic. 

In the United States during the lockdowns of 2020, we lived in California which was one of the strictest states when it came to responding to the pandemic. California shut down many businesses and schools, and it was hard for our family to even leave the house.

Only my dad had the opportunity to go out to the supermarket once a week to buy groceries. The only place for us to go outside was in our own backyard. School suddenly stopped and went online, and we couldn’t eat at any restaurants. Because other parts of the United States was using the coexistence approach, California had to keep shutting down to fight off the virus until everyone got vaccinated. 

During the same year in China, thanks to their strict zero-tolerance rules, they were able to keep COVID under control. I could walk down the street without a mask, I could eat in restaurants, and I could study in a real classroom instead of over Zoom. These were everyday normal activities, but in my eyes, they were very precious after the lockdowns in California. We couldn’t enjoy this sort of normal life in the U.S. because so many parts of the U.S. used the coexistence approach that the virus was spreading everywhere and our strict state of California had to shut down many parts of society. 

By 2021, China had largely recovered from the pandemic, while there were still many people in the US who did not believe in the virus or refused to use masks. It’s not hard to understand that, after all, America is a free country, and we must allow for different voices. In China, people were united, and also the government and president had the power to make decisions that people had to follow.

However, China’s seemingly rigid and perfect plan is actually deeply flawed. When the virus problem seemed to be resolved, many conflicts arose as a result. As a country, when there was an outbreak, people must be quarantined, kept in their homes, and guarded by professional staff. People had to undergo major COVID tests on a regular basis, lining up, sometimes spending a whole day waiting. When the virus was under control, people could live normally in China, but when there was an outbreak, zero-tolerance made everyone a prisoner. 

Also, many individual tragedies happened. According to ABC News, it was reported that a hospital refused to accept a pregnant woman who was about to give birth because she did not have a COVID test result. Yet there was no hospital nearby that could do one quickly, and no other hospital had an obstetrics and gynecology department that could help her give birth. After waiting for two hours, the poor woman miscarried at the hospital’s main entrance. The whole thing was so sad that I felt upset and scared when I heard the news. What is more important than the life of a child?

I am sure that this is not the only tragedy that has occurred as a result of zero-tolerance pandemic prevention and control in China. Nor is it the only impact of the pandemic. For example, it is a lifelong regret that people are unable to travel by airplane or train because of the pandemic and are unable to attend important family events, such as the funeral of a loved one who is far away. Many people think it’s good that the pandemic is so tightly controlled in China, but the psychological damage it causes is far greater than the damage caused by the COVID-19. 

But the Chinese government also understood these problems and risks. They are sad and distressed by the difficulty of a zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19, but they have to do it because if they let their guard down and let the pandemic spread, as the US has done, it would be an even worse outcome. 

This is why China has been struggling even more under the recent waves of COVID-19 in the country.  Recently, the outbreak has struck again. Since one-third of China’s population is elderly and these elderly people rarely get the vaccine, this makes it difficult to control the disease. China’s medical system cannot support it, causing great inconvenience to the people.

The United States is a large country, not too densely populated, and medically advanced. China, by contrast, has a population that is four times the size of the US, even though their land size is similar, and China’s medical care is comparable to that of the US but not nearly enough for that many people. If the pandemic spreads in China, people will be infected faster, and those who are infected will not be treated in time. This is an even worse outcome! The American medical system in many parts of the country already collapsed under the weight of COVID-19 cases, and this would have been far worse if it happened in China. 

In the United States, a country of unparalleled freedom, the government has no right to keep track of people’s whereabouts, cannot force residents to stay home for days, and in some places, cannot even mandate vaccines and masks. There is no way to control the pandemic because of this system and the culture of the society, so living with it is the best way, especially because there are fewer people in the U.S. and the medical system can actually manage most of it.

Now, in the United States, it seems that we can travel normally, eat in restaurants normally, and even if we get the coronavirus, it’s not a big deal. With the help of the vaccine and immunity from widespread infection, it’s just like a cold and you get over it in a few days.

China is still following a zero-tolerance policy — if there’s one case, the whole city shuts down and everyone is tested to control the spread of the virus. 

Each country has its own way of dealing with an outbreak because of the different situations. So before we judge which way is better, we should take a moment to understand each country’s specific needs. As long as people are kept safe, any approach can be the best way.

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