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COVID-19: Do Quarantine Rules Apply to Mega-Geniuses?

How did Elon Musk, who has a cozy relationship with China, get his upscale car factory classified as an essential business during the pandemic?

Waking up this morning, I discovered that conventional quarantine rules apparently don’t apply if you are a mega-genius.

Alameda County, California, has become a hotbed of coronavirus (COVID-19), forcing the county health department to issue an official quarantine order. However, Alameda County also happens to be where our local mega-genius, self-driving car whiz Elon Musk (above right) has a factory.

President Trump has singled Musk out, likening him to Thomas Edison, declaring that “we should protect our geniuses.” But how far should that protection go? And is Musk even our genius?

Ever since China decided to fund his Shanghai factory, Musk has been strangely in sync with the Chinese leadership’s view of COVID-19. Unfortunately, that means downplaying its seriousness.

Despite the Alameda County quarantine/shelter in place order, Musk is keeping his factory open. In fact, early reports from Twitter allege that Musk was pressuring sick workers to report for work at pretty much all of the facilities that he runs.

If so, how does he get away with stuff like that? Somehow, Musk got the Fremont factory included in the list of essential businesses. You read that right. Electric cars that the average person can’t afford have been classed as an essential business in the middle of a pandemic. Perhaps in response to media inquiries, Musk has allowed that those who feel ill need not come to work.

All of this prompts the question, how much coddling should we be giving Musk? His businesses survive entirely on public handouts. For instance, the profitability of Tesla (on the few quarters that it has occurred) comes from a combination of incentives for the buyers (which allow him to sell at lower prices) and government credits for the firm. Without those two factors, he would never have made a profit in any quarter. Now, he is given a green light to keep producing his vehicles while the rest of the county is forced to shelter in place.

This is not the free market. The free market means that everyone plays by the same rules. The free market fails if the ordinary rules don’t apply to some people. And if we are going to hold some people up as business icons, why should it be those who—in the present COVID-19 troubles—have relations with China that necessarily raise questions?

Further reading on COVID-19 in China (by Heather Zeiger):

Coronavirus in world without trust. In China, medical heroism thrives despite both paranoia and justified mistrust of authorities.

Censorship? But coronavirus doesn’t care! Back when SARS was a threat, social media wasn’t the giant it is today. Censorship, secrecy, and detention are less effective tools of control now.


Serious media in China have gone strangely silent. With a compulsory new app, the government can potentially access journalists’ phones, both for surveillance and capturing data. Liu Hu sums up the scene in a few words: “Outside of China, journalists are fired for writing false reports… Inside China, they are fired for telling the truth.”

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

COVID-19: Do Quarantine Rules Apply to Mega-Geniuses?