The China experience

The Chinese way

Print edition : April 10, 2020

Army medical personnel arrive with supplies in a transport aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on February 13. Photo: REUTERS

Community workers in protective suits disinfect a residential compound in Wuhan on March 6. Photo: REUTERS

Inside a supermarket in Wuhan, China, on February 10. Photo: REUTERS

China has pooled all its resources to fight the coronavirus and is not only helping other countries with medical supplies and expert teams but also sharing its frontline medical experiences with the world in a transparent way.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) officially declared the coronavirus disease a global pandemic, sparking broad criticism of the so-called China’s original sin. Some voices mention that Beijing should have revealed more information about the virus in the initial stages, disclosed the exact origin of the disease, etc. It seemed that the Chinese government had a skeleton in its closet. Biochemical weapon, artificial virus—anti-Chinese conspiracy theories went viral. So, let us see what China has done for battling the epidemic.

While the coronavirus has caused more than 110,000 infections across 114 countries and regions, with a global death toll of more than 8,000, China implemented stringent prevention and control measures at great cost, which the WHO has praised highly: Almost 60 days’ and nights’ battle against the virus, 340 medical assistance teams, more than 42,000 health-care workers who have been separated from their families since the Chinese Spring Festival. Among them, 46 have died on duty and 1,716 infected. Besides, the Chinese government locked down the virus epicentre, Wuhan, where 10 million people live, on January 23. Across Hubei, as many as 60 million people faced some sort of outbound restriction. Without their sacrifice, it would have been impossible for close to 80 per cent of the over 80,000 infected patients on the Chinese mainland to recover. Looking at their sacrifice, any allegation based on conspiracy theories is unfair.

Echoes of the Great Plague

It reminds me of the Great Plague, also known as the Black Death, which happened in Eyam village in England, located 35 miles (one mile is 1.6 kilometres) southeast of Manchester. The plague arrived at Eyam in the summer of 1665. As the disease began to spread around the village, panic set in and some people initially suggested that they should flee. It was then that a courageous rector named William Mompesson stepped in and persuaded the villagers not to leave the village, as doing so would put the neighbouring towns and villages at risk. It must have been a painful decision to take, but at length the villagers agreed and decided to quarantine themselves even though it would mean death for many of them.

Eyam’s decision was important, as it meant that fewer people died of the plague, which did not spread across the rest of England. In the end, just 35 out of 350 villagers were left in the village; 259 people gave their lives to save others. Today, there are plaques, signs and memorials all around the village, and on the last Sunday of every August, known as Plague Sunday, a commemorative service is held at Eyam. This is exactly what is happening in China, in Wuhan and Hubei. If Eyam is to be remembered always for the heroic sacrifice, why not Wuhan and Hubei? If 259 villagers could be called martyrs and awarded flowers, why not for the Chinese people?

China has passed the peak of the virus outbreak, with new cases trickling down and the overall epidemic situation improving. China’s experience, even Eyam’s, shows that in order to battle a highly infectious disease, the first and foremost task is to stop it from spreading. As everyone knows, the outbreak of the virus coincided with the Chinese Spring Festival holiday, when hundreds of millions move from one place to another by air or by high-speed train. However, the holiday passenger volume of 2020 was slashed by half and for those who needed to travel, seats were spaced out to minimise contact.

The second aspect, mass mobilisation, is indispensable. Medical resources poured into Wuhan and other cities in Hubei, the hardest hit by the virus. A day after the Wuhan lockdown, 450 military health workers arrived to help local doctors. During the early stages of the outbreak, they faced a dire shortage of supplies. Therefore, factories that previously made garments, plastics, and even tofu, shifted rapidly to mask production even though the transformation may come at a cost. According to the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, China’s output of protective clothing surged to 500,000 pieces a day from fewer than 20,000 pieces at the beginning of the outbreak. The daily output of N95-rated medical masks rose from 200,000 to 1.6 million while the production of regular masks reached 100 million.

The third aspect, policy adjustment, is flexible and efficient. By the end of January, all provincial-level regions in China had activated top-level emergency response to the epidemic, cancelling mass events, suspending long-distance buses, and closing tourist spots. China even postponed annual sessions of the national legislative and political advisory bodies, a key event in the Chinese political calendar. However, when the situation began to improve, provinces took differentiated measures to resume economic activities. According to a national guideline, regions with relatively low risk focussed on preventing imported cases and comprehensively restoring the order of production and life. Medium-risk regions promoted work and production resumption in an orderly manner while high-risk regions such as Wuhan continued to be fully committed to epidemic prevention and control.

The fourth aspect, the role of the tech sector, helped the battle with the epidemic. The Chinese government called for the acceleration of research for new-type testing kits, antibody medicines, vaccines, diagnosis and treatment plans. According to sources in the Chinese media, a vaccine is being developed and convalescent plasma therapy has also been experimented. My colleague in China shared with me several videos that showed robots spraying disinfectants, drones carrying out surveillance and announcing precaution measures by using rap in communities.

Beyond robots and drones, China also upgraded its facial recognition system to scan crowds and identify individuals suffering from fever or abnormally high body temperature. In Chengdu, a south-western city of China, the police force has been armed with a high-tech smart helmet which looks like the one in the American mystery film Surrogates. It can automatically measure a person’s temperature when they enter a five-metre range. The helmet will ring an alarm if anyone has a fever. Hangzhou, an eastern city in nearby Shanghai, is the first Chinese city to adopt QR codes for medical service. People download an app, which is connected with the user’s electronic health cards and social security cards, making everything easy, from registration to medicine-taking. Residents can show the QR codes at community or expressway checkpoints to prove their heath condition and this no-contact check leads to reduced virus-transmission risk. Although some of these new technologies triggered concerns of privacy in Chinese social media, they are indeed efficient and extremely necessary during a health crisis.

China spent two months showing the world the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the epidemic: wearing masks, washing your hands and eliminating mass gathering. Not only that; on January 12, China shared the genome sequence of the new virus with the WHO, after identifying the pathogen on January 7. So far, China has shared multiple files on epidemic control as well as diagnosis and treatment plans with over 100 countries and more than 10 international and regional organisations. Zhong Nanshan, head of China’s National Health Commission high-level expert group, also shares China’s solutions, discusses the clinical characteristics and treatment difficulties of critically ill patients, and addresses his concerns in tackling the virus with his foreign counterparts. Doesn’t it show solidarity and cooperation between China and other countries?

At the beginning of this article, I talked about some criticism and conspiracy theories, such as the necessity of disclosing the exact origin of the disease by the Chinese government. I do not intend to deny that virus traceability is important. And China is indeed going to find it out. But, at the same time, we need to take immediate steps and precautions to battle with the fatal virus, such as researching a vaccine under a global cooperation programme. Even if we do not know which gorilla was the exact source of the contagion of the HIV virus, we still can protect ourselves from getting infected.

Lack of mutual trust

“Today humanity faces an acute crisis not only due to the coronavirus, but also due to the lack of trust between humans,” said Yuval Noah Harari, a philosopher and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. “To defeat an epidemic, people need to trust scientific experts, citizens need to trust public authorities, and countries need to trust each other.” He added: “In this moment of crisis, the crucial struggle takes place within humanity itself. If this epidemic results in greater disunity and mistrust among humans, it will be the virus’s greatest victory.” I could feel his regret, caused by fake, racist and extremely nationalistic news and conspiracy theories that have flooded social media. It reflects a big gap which shows the lack of mutual trust.

For example, a viral video allegedly shows a Chinese woman enjoying the infamous “bat soup” which has been blamed for the spread of the virus, but the fact is that the video was actually taken years ago and outside China. However, crazy and irresponsible posts such as these get shared many thousands of times. I understand that it is probably because of the exacerbation of the public health situation and its anxieties. But policymakers and opinion shapers, whether public or corporate, must learn to screen and provide real information. Otherwise, the crisis will only increase multifold.

I think the first cholera pandemic (1817-1824) which began in and attacked the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and spread throughout Southeast Asia and West Asia, eastern Africa and the Mediterranean coast is still imprinted in Indian memory. It reached as far as China. When we look back on the history of battling this pandemic, the most critical inspiration is working together and finding out scientific methods and not conspiracy theories.

The virus, identified as COVID-19 by the WHO, is the enemy of all human beings, and the Chinese government has set a good example in shouldering the responsibility to control the virus, making strategic decisions and helping other countries by not only dispatching medical supplies and medical teams but also sharing China’s frontline medical experiences with the world in an open and transparent way. Though China still needs to be vigilant for imported infections, its experience shows that the disease can and will be contained. Do not let anyone else persuade you with their so-called survivor bias. China deserves well of the world.

Bofeng Hu is Associate senior journalist of People’s Daily of China and a Fellow of Taihe Institution. Email: barryhbf@hotmail.com

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