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How much freedom should we be willing to give up in order to prevent many people from dying?

It’s been more than two years since that ceased to be an airy debate-club hypothetical, and turned into a central policy question of the pandemic age. There is still no widely agreed-upon, unambiguous answer – and in many places, there remains a lethal fear of confronting it.

In recent days, however, we’ve witnessed two milestones in the history of this question, each leading to very different insights.

The first was in New Zealand where, for the first time in two years, people from abroad are now allowed to visit. That follows the February announcement that citizens could return to their country without a two-week military-guarded hotel quarantine (though proof of vaccination is still required, sensibly). It was an easy decision to make, because 95 per cent of New Zealand’s vaccine-eligible population are now fully vaccinated, thus making the disease more of an inconvenience than a death threat for most.

The informed consensus is that these infringements on freedom of travel were entirely worth it, because they prevented an estimated 10,000 COVID-19 deaths from taking place in a country of five million, and because they gave New Zealanders freedoms, during that deadly year before vaccination, that most of the rest of the world could only dream of.

New Zealand managed to keep itself all but coronavirus-free during that crucial year, and thus has recorded the lowest death rate among countries with accurate measurements. That allowed daily life to continue more or less as normal during most periods (much as Atlantic Canadians experienced during its travel-bubble months), along with unprecedented economic growth while the rest of the world slumped.

The second milestone was in Shanghai, where about half of the city’s 25 million people were recently allowed to go outside for the first time in weeks, and about four million were allowed to leave their neighbourhoods, in a slight easing of the draconian “COVID zero” policies enforced in response to a modest Omicron-variant outbreak.

Most of the pandemic’s so-called lockdowns, such as those experienced in Northern Italy or New York City in 2020 when their hospitals were overwhelmed, were mere stay-at-home requests. Shanghai authorities, who faced no such catastrophe, have literally locked citizens into their apartment buildings, sometimes even constructing fences around complexes.

Unlike in New Zealand, this was not a sacrifice of some external freedoms in exchange for greater internal freedoms than one might otherwise experience during a plague. It was a total loss of the most rudimentary freedoms, in exchange for nothing.

And unlike in New Zealand, it was not a modest loss of freedoms in order to prevent a large loss of life. Although China’s two available vaccines have been found considerably less effective in reducing serious illness and death than the mRNA vaccines used elsewhere, there is no indication that China’s Omicron outbreak would have been particularly deadly without the restrictions (even after the lockdowns eased, numbers of deaths and hospitalizations there have been negligible at best).

In fact, to judge by the numerous reports coming from Shanghai of malnourishment-related deaths, abandonment of vulnerable people, and neglect of elders during these weeks, it seems that the lockdown has killed more people than it might have saved from the disease.

When the pandemic was at its most terrifying peak in 2020, many commentators suggested that the world’s democracies were at a disadvantage, because only dictatorships such as China could quickly and easily respond to medical data and impose the strict controls necessary to keep the disease from killing millions.

After more than six million unnecessary deaths around the world, the flaw in that logic is more visible. Perhaps authoritarian countries can crack down on their citizens more easily, or at least in more painful ways – but it’s turned out that they’re not adept at tying policies to data. Single-party states such as China, and authoritarian-leaning democracies such as India, have used the pandemic as cover to brutalize and sometimes starve the most vulnerable.

The next time a worldwide disease strikes, we may not wish to be the United States, which suffered a staggering number of unnecessary deaths (a death rate more than three times higher than Canada’s, and 23 times higher than New Zealand’s) in the name of symbolic freedom from basic hygiene principles. Indeed, the U.S. still has a vaccination rate that is far too low to prevent deadly outbreaks. Nor would we want to be Shanghai – a place with neither freedom nor safety. But we may at least have a better idea where the ideal balance lies, having tested both extremes. And that place looks a lot like the South Pacific.

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