Our anxiety was triggered as soon as we stepped on American soil. In China, airport medical checks happened before we were allowed into areas with other passengers. At Chicago O’Hare International Airport, we waited in line with hundreds of other passengers at border security before finally being identified as having just returned from China. At that point, we were escorted to the side by an apologetic young man in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention jacket who checked our temperatures and gave us a packet informing us that, as individuals traveling from China, the CDC requested we isolate ourselves as much as possible for 14 days. Airport staff never even asked where we were going.

I’ve now lived through a coronavirus quarantine in the two countries, and the differences are stark well beyond their airports. In China, the obligation to isolate felt shared and the public changed their habits almost immediately. Sterilization, cleanliness and social distancing were prioritized by everyone at all times. Rightly or wrongly, the Chinese state’s heavy-handed approach seemed to work.

In contrast, individual liberty is the engine that drives American exceptionalism. There are certainly valid questions about how much of it to sacrifice in the name of the public good, but our laissez-faire attitude, prioritization of personal freedom and utter lack of government leadership have left Americans confused and exposed.