Li Wenliang, the Chinese whistleblower doctor who died of the coronavirus after trying to warn people about it.
Li Wenliang, the Chinese whistleblower doctor who died of the coronavirus after trying to warn people about it. Li Wenliang

Editor’s note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. The opinions expressed here are hers.

The highly contagious virus is a minefield of ethical, political and moral dilemmas. That it emerged in China, a country ruled by an authoritarian, politically-repressive regime, wrapped the crisis in a uniquely chilling atmosphere.

Governments, public health experts and private firms are trying to figure out how to respond to the crisis, which has unsurprisingly created a multitude of tough decisions.

China’s response: China’s decision to put nearly 60 million people under lockdown in and around Wuhan is unprecedented and highly controversial. When a local doctor, Li Wenliang, tried to raise the alarm in December, authorities detained him and accused him of spreading rumors. He died of the virus last week.

Then a citizen journalist, Chen Qiushi, providing critical reporting from Wuhan, suddenly disappeared. Another citizen journalist was reportedly arrested on Monday amid reports of a growing number of arrests for criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis.

But it’s not just China’s response that has raised questions. Whenever a contagion becomes so serious that the word “quarantine” becomes part of the discussions, the ethical cost of such prevention casts a shadow on every decision.

Quarantine quandary: Quarantine is a frontal assault on freedom. It literally deprives individuals of their liberties for the sake of the larger community, raising countless difficult questions.

How much power should authorities have over the daily lives of individuals? How much should individuals sacrifice for the sake of the community? How far should the state go in enforcing restrictions? Should people go to jail for violating a confinement to which they are forced because of no fault of their own? What to do when someone becomes ill on a ship holding thousands of healthy passengers? If you decide to keep the passengers on board, who will bring their food? How will they be protected?

Read the full op-ed here.