War Against COVID-19: The Chinese Approach

Bappy Rahman

27th March, 2020 12:44:13 printer

War Against COVID-19: The Chinese Approach


A video titled ‘What works against the virus?’ has gone viral in recent times. Zou Yue, the news anchor of China Global Television Network (CGTN), based in Beijing, told about the decisive measures that bring China one step closer to the end of the battle against the new coronavirus. For almost a month, COVID-19infected thousands in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, in a day, and every hospital bed was occupied. However, hospital beds are empty, and wards are close now in the city. How did China make it? What China did is to break the cycle by human intervention, the scale unprecedented in history. “Extreme”, “draconian”, and “aggressive”, these are the words used to describe China’s response. Now people have come to terms with the new norm: lockdown. Some people say, isn’t that a violation of individual rights? Well, the balance between individual rights and public safety is always an ever-changing equation. The government has nothing to do but suspend the rights of the individuals when a potentially deadly epidemic threatens a population,

China launched a costly public health response in Wuhan, which involved many tactics besides isolation of cases and contacts, including lockdown of the city and mass quarantine, social distancing mandates, school closures, and intense case finding and contact tracing by the medical and public health professionals who were mobilized across the country to come to Wuhan. The approach in Wuhan and the nearby cities in Hubei Province took exceptional measures in response to the outbreak because there was evidence of high-level community transmission and widespread nosocomial infections.

China imposed the most extensive and most draconian quarantine in history. Factories shut, public transport stopped, and people stayed indoors. By doing that, it flattened the curve. On the one hand, China avoided many millions of cases and tens of thousands of deaths. On the other, it stretched out the time and made the hospitals restaffed and less strained. Quarantine is indeed extreme and extremely restrictive. It requires the people in lockdown to be honest and cooperative. What the people of Wuhan did was exceptional. They had the courage, tenacity, and resilience to stay housebound for days, weeks, and months. Most viewed the quarantine as a civic duty. And that is why it worked.

China built two new 1,000-1,300-bed hospitals to fight the coronavirus, one created in six days, and the second in 15 days, using prefabricated modules. This isn’t the first time China has quickly manufactured hospitals dedicated to handling outbreaks. During the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, Beijing built a hospital in seven days, with 7,000 people working day and night. Other buildings got repurposed to support more coronavirus patients, too. In addition to China’s quickly-created hospitals, China also took pre-existing hospitals and repurposed them to solely handle patients with the novel coronavirus, sealing them off from others.

The country postponed non-urgent medical care and moved many doctor’s visits online. Not all patients were given the critical care they needed during the outbreak, though. People who thought they had the novel coronavirus in China would often be sent to a specialized fever clinic, which has been widespread since the country dealt with an aggressive SARS outbreak in 2002. Their temperature would be taken, and they’d discuss their symptoms, medical history, travel history, and any prior contact with anyone infected with a doctor.

During the height of the outbreak, trains didn’t stop at the disease's epicenter, Wuhan. Cutting off transportation was considered on the top three measures to contain the spread of the virus. Interestingly, while staying home, it’s been relatively easy for Chinese people to get extra food and supplies. People quickly shifted jobs to assist during the outbreak. When it came to the non-medical response, there was a general sense of solidarity with Hubei. Other provinces sent 40,000 medical workers to the center of the outbreak, many of whom were volunteers.

Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang Province, more than one thousand miles away from Wuhan, the epicenter of COVID-19, implemented multiple control and prevention measures from the very beginning of the outbreak. The city used big data and information technology, like QR codes, to track and stop the spread of the coronavirus. Health QR codes were established for everyone in the city and everyone who entered the city. The green code allows you to move freely. The yellow code requires a seven-day self-quarantine. The red code requires a 14-day self-quarantine. The yellow and red codes can be turned green after the quarantine time. This health surveillance system has been applied in most cities in Zhejiang Province and will be implemented in other provinces. Each individual must monitor and record their temperature and update their profile daily to maintain their health status level. The health database is closely monitored by Hangzhou’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

China’s unprecedented systematic and proactive risk management, based on collaboration between government officials and health experts, has proven to be effective in containing and controlling COVID-19. The timely release of disease-related clinical data to the public and the World Health Organization (WHO) helped many around the world prepare for the spread. Recently, the Hubei provincial government announced that those control measures will be lifted on 8th April, and cleared residents will finally be allowed to leave the city. Those who wish to enter the city will also need clearance, according to a statement from the provincial government. Officials have already begun to slowly relax some of the strict measures put in place in Wuhan. Road checkpoints are being removed, and some private vehicles have returned to the streets. The city’s subway system remains shut down but has begun trial runs as workers disinfect the subway trains and stations in preparation for the restoration of public transport.

Zou Yue started with a good introduction: “Covid-19 respects no national borders, no social bounds, no political systems, and no cultural values. It hits us just as hard. It levels the world.” Other governments, including Bangladesh, have imposed similar controls, closing regions or national borders, as the virus spread around the globe. I am concluding today’s column with Zou’s inspirational words, “We should all move ahead with humility, there is no decision without trade-offs, and most of all: there is nothing without skin in the game. And now the whole world has learnt or is learning to play”.

(The writer acknowledges with gratitude the different sources of information.)

The writer is a Chinese Government Ph.D. Fellow and Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Jagannath University, Dhaka