Over at the Washington Post, Keith Humphreys ended the week on a pessimistic note, opining that no matter how much testing and contact tracing is required to get us fully past this pandemic, America will never do as well as several other countries that seem to be taming the virus more quickly. The reason? Because Americans love their “freedom” too much. (Please note for the record that it was Humphreys who put the word freedom in scare quotes, not me.)
He begins by quoting medical professionals who insist that the only path toward the new normal relies on our ability to “test, isolate, contact trace and quarantine.” He then lists a few examples of countries where those practices appear to be helping them tame the virus, including Germany, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. But, the author argues, we may never succeed in the same fashion because such programs would require not only a willingness to surrender considerable privacy rights and freedoms, but also a general attitude of trust towards the government which doesn’t exist in the United States today.
But even a technically sound program is useless without widespread consent. And obtaining such consent “would require a major reduction in our liberties and a prolonged period of increased surveillance,” as journalist Stephen Bush points out. Will Americans accept those reductions willingly and quickly enough to implement an effective testing regimen? It’s hard to imagine.
In countries with successful testing programs, the relationship of citizens to the government differs from that of the United States in important respects. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, Germans are almost twice as likely as Americans (59 percent vs. 31 percent) to have confidence in government. This may help explain Germans’ greater willingness to comply with testing regimens and mask-wearing guidelines — and why Germany has almost two-thirds fewer coronavirus deaths per capita than the United States.
This isn’t a case of me trying to read something into Humphreys’ words here. He’s quite direct in describing the differences between the societies found in the nations he listed. Describing the fairly recent and young democracies in countries like Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan (where testing and contact tracing seem to have produced admirable effects), he notes that there is an air of “authoritarian residue.” This genetic memory of times when the government controlled nearly every aspect of citizens’ lives helps to promote “compliance with government-imposed coronavirus measures.”
I suppose we should examine this analysis with two questions in mind. First, is Humphreys correct? And second, even if we assume that he is, should we really be envious of people living under harsher authoritarian rule and emulate their behavior if it gets us past the pandemic faster?
As to the first question, I have no argument to offer. The author is absolutely correct. Americans are probably just about the orneriest group of curmudgeons on the planet when it comes to bending to the will of the government. That’s because we are arguably the freest people on Earth. We were born of generations of people who had experienced life under the rule of a monarch without any serious assurances of God-given rights. And they wound up telling that monarch to go stick it where the sun doesn’t shine. We’re not all that different today.
With that in mind, I would say that I would not care to exchange the remaining freedoms that we haven’t already allowed to slip away or decay in the name of beating the novel coronavirus faster. I’ve already written about the concerns I have over widespread contact tracing and how the abuse of such a system could impact everyone. We have no choice but to allow a certain amount of overreach of executive authority during times of declared states of emergency (and the courts have largely backed such actions), but that must be limited in scope and end as quickly as possible.
There are also questions about precisely how effective mass-scale testing and contact tracing will be in a nation as large, diverse and mobile as ours when compared to smaller, more authoritarian states like South Korea. I’m not saying we shouldn’t test as many people who are both willing and available as possible and help keep them isolated if they have the virus. That’s just common sense. But the tests are only a single snapshot. Anyone testing negative may very well go out to walk their dog the next day and contract the virus from some other random dog-walker who sneezes.
Further, as we’ve discussed here in the past, we’re still not at the point where we can trust all of the available testing kits that much. Some of them that are still in use have shown error rates producing false negatives as much as 40% of the time.
In the end, we’re probably doing the best we can do in our fight against the novel coronavirus. Every nation has to come up with their own solution and ours will wind up being uniquely American, framed around both our scientific capabilities and our values. If that means that we can’t get our virus numbers down to nearly zero as fast as some other nations, so be it. Heck, we still don’t know with 100% certainty if this virus can ever be eliminated or if we’ll ever have a vaccine. But if not, we’ll at least go down swinging.